COVID-19 and the Attack on Press Freedom
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to have significant repercussions for social welfare and the economy, the alarming threat this crisis poses to the global media landscape should not be overlooked either.
As the novel coronavirus - and the cloud of misinformation surrounding it - continued to spread, access to reliable news became more important than ever. Yet, amid the public health pandemic, journalists across the globe found themselves battling another one. What may have started with reporters covering coronavirus disappearing in China, has soon expanded to worrying proportions, with Trump attacking press during news briefings or Turkey restricting social media use for covid-19 related content. In Serbia, a journalist was arrested for reporting about the hospital situation and all the way across the continent, in Armenia, reporting on the coronavirus was suddenly only allowed when citing official government statistics.
In fact, according to a report compiled by Reporters Without Borders, coronavirus is threatening media freedom in several territories. It is not that the outbreak provoked the crisis per say, it merely amplified the many threats already hindering press freedom. However, the seemingly random incidents were anything but.
The underlying cause for all these attacks was the attempt to discredit journalists and limit their expression, as Reporters Without Borders pointed out. The watchdogs needed to be weakened in order to not be able to call the public’s attention to another emergency.
With the public eyes fixed on the outbreak, certain governments have been quick to jump at the opportunity to grab even more power. By using the notorious shock doctrine, they’ve taken advantage of the fact that the public was distracted and protests out of question (during the lockdown large public assemblies, including protests and demonstrations were illegal in some areas), in order to enforce measures that would be impossible in normal times: increased surveillance, restrictions on free expression and information flow and limited public participation.
Naturally, in times of crisis, governments should be allowed - perhaps even required - to take restrictive measures than would normally be viewed as unacceptable. And when weighing people's health against press freedom or even personal privacy, it should be noted that the latter are not absolute rights. However, there are certain lines that should not be crossed if we are to avoid lasting consequences for the democracy as a whole , one of them being the limits of the international human rights laws, that some governments seemed to have already far overreached.
In Hungary, for example, the so called “suicide” of parliament granted Orban extraordinary powers to suspend existing legislation and pass “coronavirus” laws, that have very little to do with the pandemic itself. Among first changes? Penalties of up to five years in prison for false information, giving "the Viktator" (as Hungarians taking to the streets have nicknamed their leader due to his autocratic tendencies) even more freedom to persecute members of the press.
While it's perhaps to early to access long-term consequences of this incidents - we have no idea how long the crisis will actually last - it is safe to say that journalism can only continue to serve as a watchdog in the absence of censorship and constant government pressure.
By Klara Avsec
For detailed information on all detected media freedom violations during the Covid-19 pandemic, visit International Press Insitute.