It’s hardly shocking that some of the world’s most ruthless autocrats have used the Covid-19 pandemic to justify media repression. It was predictable, for example, that China would use the global health crisis, and now America’s riots, to rationalize jailing leaders of Hong Kong’s democracy movement—prominent journalists among them—to crush its freedom crusade and consolidate Beijing’s control. Nor was it surprising that Belarus, ruled by its authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, has used the virus and pro-democracy protests to jail 30 of the former Soviet republic’s most influential opposition figures, including popular blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky, before a presidential election on August 9.
Autocrats have often sought such convenient cover for their suppression of speech and other forms of expression that displease them. According to free-speech advocates and media watchdogs, however, this trend now applies to nations that pride themselves on their commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Their leaders have used the virus to justify repressive laws that criminalize independent news reporting and impose restrictions on the press and their political opposition.
In late April, Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said his group had already compiled a partial list of some 200 cases of arrests, harassment, and threats against journalists throughout the world related to media coverage of the pandemic. In an interview, he confirmed that this disturbing trend hasn’t abated. Journalists living in countries with autocratic and more democratic rulers alike have been jailed under recently enacted laws for allegedly reporting “fake news” about the virus in the Dominican Republic, Nigeria, Kenya, Ethiopia, Iran, Liberia, and Turkey, among others. “Call it the Covid-19 crackdown,” Simon told a webinar organized by the Aspen Institute.
Among the most egregious examples is India, which has long enjoyed one of the most vibrant, freewheeling media environments. Yet in the past three months, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly used the pandemic to deny reporters access to information, restrict their physical movement, and stifle criticism of the government’s management of the virus. In an “appeal” to editors and publishers of leading print news organizations on March 25, hours before unveiling a nationwide lockdown on non-essential movement and commerce, Modi urged journalists to publish “positive” stories and “act as a link between government and people.”
At the pandemic’s outset, Modi also tried, but failed, to get India’s supreme court to back a measure that would have effectively banned independent coverage of the crisis. But India’s media have been cowed, nonetheless. During the three-week lockdown of India’s 1.3 billion people, the Free Speech Collective (FSC), an Indian media watchdog group, reported that law enforcement authorities have questioned, filed cases against, or arrested at least ten journalists for reporting on such issues as the poor quality of personal protective equipment for medical workers, unsanitary quarantine conditions in cities and villages, and the plight of millions of migrant workers. “Even basic reporting on the failing health, food, transport infrastructures is being criminalized,” Neha Dixit, an award-winning independent journalist based in Delhi, recently told a Washington Post columnist. “There is no tolerance for any reflection on state failure to provide the bare minimum during the pandemic.”
As the FSC found, among the most farcical is the arrest of journalist Zubair Ahmed for questioning why the relatives of a Covid-19 patient were quarantined for having spoken to the infected patient by phone. Ahmed faces wide-ranging charges, among them having conducted a “negligent act likely to spread infection of disease dangerous to life.”
Meantime, Brazil—led by Jair Bolsonaro, who has dismissed the pandemic’s danger—enjoyed a relatively free press until the virus arrived and made the country home to the world’s second-highest number of infections, after America. In March, Bolsonaro enacted legislation that suspends deadlines for public authorities and institutions to respond to requests for information and eliminates appeals in case of denial. Though the Brazilian supreme court has reportedly overturned the law, Bolsonaro has continued trying to use the pandemic to silence critics and restrict the press, the CPJ asserts.
The free-press record of South Africa, too, once considered a regional model, is also disappointing, Simon said. On March 18, the government criminalized disinformation about the pandemic with penalties of heavy fines and even jail time. On April 6, Puerto Rico barred media outlets from “transmitting or allowing the transmission” of “false information.” Violators face up to six months in prison and fines up to $5,000.
Trends in the Middle East are particularly disturbing, said Sherif Mansour, the CPJ’s program coordinator for that region. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, already repressive media landscapes that rank third and fourth, respectively, among the world’s most heavily censored countries, have used the pandemic to “deepen and expand their censorship regimes,” he said. Since February, CPJ reports, Egypt has arrested at least ten journalists because of their Covid-19-related reports. In mid-March, Egypt forced the departure of Ruth Michaelson, a reporter for the Guardian—the last Egyptian-based correspondent for a British newspaper—for challenging the accuracy of the government’s Covid-19 case estimates. Egyptian censors have also blocked entire websites for carrying stories about the government’s handling of the pandemic.
Mansour says that censorship and other suppressions of dissent have increased in Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria, and Morocco—countries that traditionally tolerated somewhat more debate and freedom of expression. In April, Jordan’s military arrested two journalists for satellite channel Roya TV over a report on worker complaints about the economic impact of the country’s curfew. In March, Jordan—along with Oman, Morocco, Yemen, and Iran—suspended newspaper distribution, though there is little evidence that the virus can be spread through paper. Meantime, Algeria has arrested several journalists under its new “fake news” law and blocked at least three websites.
Criticism of such measures from the U.S. has been muted. No reporters have been attacked or arrested here because of their virus reporting, but since the recent protests and riots began following the death in police custody of George Floyd in Minneapolis, dozens of journalists say that they have been harassed, attacked with batons or nonlethal projectiles, or arrested. Last week, the Media Law Resource Center had recorded over 30 arrests of reporters covering the nationwide demonstrations, and over 130 instances of harassment of, or attacks on, journalists. Leita Walker, a partner at Ballard, Spahr in Minneapolis, who helped moderate a MLRC-sponsored call of over 100 lawyers and other First Amendment advocates, called such numbers “unprecedented.”
George Freeman, the MLRC’s director, said that what also made the attacks and interference unusual was the fact that they came “from all sides”—both police and protesters. “When you’re being attacked by people whose agenda is unclear, from all sides, you don’t know whether it’s an advantage or disadvantage to identify yourself as a reporter,” he said. “You’re supposed to let the police know you’re a reporter doing your job who is supposed to be protected,” he said, “but it still may be dangerous to be too visible.”
Many reporters, photographers, and press advocates said that mistreatment of journalists reflects an erosion of trust in the news media. Freeman added that it was hard to know how to reverse the erosion of trust between Trump’s White House, the president’s supporters, the police, and the press. “We can demand better training for cops,” he said. “We can lobby for legislation that denies the police immunity for harm that they cause us, but that could backfire by prompting cops to do nothing,” he said. “Moreover, it’s hard to be critical of them in such dangerous, often volatile situations.” Identifying the problem, he said, might well prove easier than finding effective solutions.
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