Journalists wearing protective gear wait near a quarantine site. File picture: Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Journalists wearing protective gear wait near a quarantine site. File picture: Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Curbing media freedom during virus menacing

By Antonio Zappulla Time of article published May 4, 2020

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As the world grapples with the speed and scale of the devastation wreaked by Covid-19, the need for access to trusted, accurate and independent information has never been so acute. With global mortality rates showing no signs of slowing, the world’s economy knocked off its axis, and society at a standstill, there is no precedent to this emergency.

We are fighting it blindfolded. Each day is costing us thousands of lives. The free-flow of information is vital.

A free and vibrant media is more important than ever. Yet one of most catastrophic fallouts of this crisis is that it is paving the way for a crackdown on press freedoms. A dangerous pattern seems to be emerging; it sees some governments increasingly taking advantage of the pandemic to instigate measures that place restrictions on news coverage. These are extremely damaging. But the long-term consequences of suppressing journalism could significantly erode civil liberties.

Why is this happening?

There are three main reasons for state-led curbing of media freedoms. The first is that some governments are acting primarily to desperately counter the rapid spread of misinformation that is being fuelled by a heightened reliance on social media and an increased thirst for news.

But the measures taken by these countries - even by democratic nations that have hitherto encouraged a thriving and diverse media - are unprecedented. Just a month ago, the government of South Africa passed a new law that criminalises disinformation about Covid-19, carrying penalties of imprisonment. The move has raised concerns from global media freedom organisations, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, that point out that the government should focus on providing reliable information itself to counter the threat of disinformation, rather than paving the way for press censorship.

In the UK, the government’s strong response to certain critical media coverage of its handling of the crisis has even prompted Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet medical journal, to accuse the government of “deliberately rewriting history in its ongoing Covid-19 disinformation campaign”.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has issued a series of requests encouraging India’s leading news outlets to publish “inspiring and positive stories” about the government’s response to the pandemic, citing a need to push back on “rumour” and “negativity”.

The second reason for restricting press freedoms is to actively suppress news reporting that could lead to criticism of policy and leadership in response to the crisis.

US President Donald Trump has drawn criticism from media freedom organisations after openly calling out reporters asking questions about his handling of the crisis during press briefings. In Serbia, there have been reports that journalists have been arrested for reporting on medical equipment shortages, while in Slovenia and the Czech Republic, they are prevented from attending press briefings altogether.

Meanwhile in March, Egypt expelled the Guardian’s Ruth Michaelson following her story based on a study by a team of infectious disease specialists that questioned the country’s official tally of coronavirus cases. Iraq suspended the licence of Reuters news agency for reporting on a discrepancy between official and “actual” coronavirus figures. The suspension was later lifted.

Just three weeks ago in Hungary, Parliament passed a law that authorises Prime Minister Viktor Orbá* to rule by decree, handing him unprecedented emergency powers of the country, ostensibly until the end of the pandemic. A five-year prison sentence threatens anyone who spreads “false information”.

China is insisting that its authoritarian measures - which has included revoking the visas of a large number of international journalists - has led to success in controlling the virus. This is difficult to dispute without a free press reporting in the region. Freelance journalist Li Zehua, one of the first to report on the pandemic, remains missing.

Covid-19 has claimed many lives. But we cannot let a free press fall victim to this pandemic.

* Zappulla is the chief executive of the Thomson Reuters Foundation

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