The short-term emergency measures governments have been taking since the COVID-19 outbreak will not only shape our current and near future, but define and shape the politics, economics, culture, and policies of the years to come, historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari argued in an article he wrote for Financial Times. In these critical times, mainly female political leaders such as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, and Norway’s Erna Solberg prioritized empathy and solidarity in their measures. On the other hand, social psychologist Frank Asbrock from the Chemnitz University of Technology demonstrated that in the past, times of crises led to a rise of authoritarian attitudes as the public tends to favour the promise of certainty and order when uncertainty and anxiety arise.
Reporters Without Borders (RWB) director general Christophe Deloire said that the pandemic had given countries with authoritarian tendencies the chance “to take advantage of the fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question, in order to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times.” Such measures hit media platforms and journalists in certain countries with an already poor record for press freedom, such as Egypt, China, Turkey, and Venezuela to name a few. Deloire said, “We are entering a decisive decade for journalism,” adding, “The coronavirus pandemic illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information.”
The shortage of access to reliable information and the disruption of free speech is not solely a matter of democracy, autonomy, dignity, self-determination, and sustainable development for individuals and nations, but an urgent and pragmatic matter of public health where the violation of such freedoms have deadly consequences.
How Censorship Let the Outbreak Get Out of Hand in The First Place
The initiation of the COVID-19 outbreak demonstrated the cruciality of free speech and access to accurate information as a tool for public interest; it unfortunately came at a great human cost and carries on doing so. On December 30th, 2019, Dr. Li Wenliang, a Chinese ophthalmologist at the Wuhan Central Hospital, messaged a group of fellow doctors on WeChat warning them about the possibility of a new pneumonia outbreak that resembled the SARS illness, later identified as COVID-19. Chinese officials chose to prioritize secrecy and order instead of confronting the issue and its risks and accused Dr. Li of “rumour-mongering” and “making false comments” that “severely disturbed the social order” a few days after his private messages.
After this, Dr. Li returned to work, where he contracted the coronavirus and was hospitalized. On January 20th, China declared the COVID-19 outbreak an emergency. “If officials had disclosed information about the epidemic earlier,” Dr. Li told the New York Times in early February, “I think it would have been a lot better. There should be more openness and transparency.” On February 7th, the ophthalmologist passed away from the illness. After his death, the phrase “We want freedom of speech” was trending on Chinese social media for a few hours before the posts were deleted, and he has since been commemorated as a hero.
Nicholas Bequelin, the Regional Director at Amnesty International, said, “Had the [Chinese] government not tried to minimize the danger, the world could have responded to the spreading virus in a more timely manner.” There is a tight control of information in China, and the media should focus on positive and encouraging news which would uphold public unity and stability, Chinese media expert Anne Marie Brady noted.
The Coronavirus Infodemic
In an online dialogue organized by the UN on May 3rd, World Press Freedom Day, UN Secretary General António Guterres emphasized that although news of coronavirus has taken over almost every media outlet, the importance of an impartial media must be emphasized as it is a time when misinformation, harmful health advice, conspiracies and hate speech has spread exponentially, threatening public safety. Both the UN chief and the World Health Organization (WHO) called the pandemic an “infodemic,” with Mr. Guterres saying, “As the pandemic spreads, it has also given rise to a second pandemic of misinformation.” He added, “The antidote to this pandemic of misinformation is fact-based news and analysis. It depends on media freedom and independent reporting.”
UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay stated that just as in war, truth should be considered the “first casualty” of the pandemic. She called for the protection of the independent free press and attention to information accuracy. Media has an essential role in helping the public make informed decisions, which public health bodies rely on, but journalists face threats as they attempt to search for truth, and separate facts from fiction.
The Hunting Down of Journalists and Other Threats to Independent Media
Venezuela has arbitrarily detained at least 10 reporters covering the pandemic since March 13th, when the first case of the coronavirus in Venezuela was confirmed. Redes Ayuda, a Venezuelan NGO specializing in press freedom, stated that more than 35 journalists and media platforms have been threatened and victimized with smear campaigns, lawsuits, and persecutions of their equipment to prevent them from reporting on COVID-19.
Venezuelans seek more transparency and information concerning the pandemic and number of cases as it is reported that there are 345 cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths, but experts predict these numbers might be downplayed. Healthcare professionals have continually warned the country’s healthcare system; as such, downplaying of the case numbers may leave the country ill-prepared and ill-equipped in the waves of cases to come, considering that Venezuela already suffers with medicine and equipment shortages. The South and Central America programme coordinator for Committee to Protect Journalists, Natalie Southwick, told Al Jazeera, “At a critical moment like this, the free flow of reliable information can spell the difference between life and death for many people, and a free press is vital to ensuring that information is able to reach those who need it.”
In Egypt, journalism practically became a crime in the past four years, as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government continued to punish and intimidate any voice that challenges the official narrative. In March, according to Amnesty International, an Egyptian journalist was arrested for questioning the official statistics on the the spread of COVID-19 in a Facebook post. He was held at an unknown location for almost a month before being brought in front of prosecutors, being accused of “spreading false news” and “joining a terrorist organization.”
More recently, in decisions issued between the 4th and 6th of May, Egyptian court has arbitrarily extended pre-trial detentions of over 1600 detainees, most of them being political prisoners, Amnesty International reports. The decision was passed without the presence of any defendants in court, some of whom have been held in pending investigation detention for up to two years which is the absolute legal limit to which pre-trial detentions can be extended.
In addition to attacks on journalists and other media workers, the ongoing financial pressures threatening the independent media sector in developing countries have intensified as a result of the pandemic. Many media outlets must rely on print advertising for revenue and ability to pay salaries, but they currently suffer major losses due to serious decreases in print circulation with the ongoing lockdowns. Luminate, a philanthropic organization, argued that this lack of circulation due to the pandemic might destroy the business model of many print media outlets, potentially becoming a “media extinction event.”
These threats to financial capacity are not simply one dimensional, but imply the potential sacrifice of the integrity and criticality of independent journalism as exterior political or commercial interests would come into play through advertisements, Khadija Patel, the Editor-in-Chief of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, explained to the Guardian. The executive editor of the Caravan journal, Vinod Jose, said that financial and political independence is linked in India because economic difficulties might force media outlets to turn to government advertisement to survive. He told the Guardian, “the challenges for Indian media will only increase, because an authoritarian government who is interested in killing journalism is in power, and a media who doesn’t have the guts to speak truth to power or the financial independence to stay afloat without taking government advertisements constitutes the mainstream press in India.”
Potential Solutions and What This All Means
As a solution, the organization Luminate proposed the idea of an International Fund for Public Interest Media (IFPIM) to help public interest media maintain their independence and trustworthiness. This fund would culminate institutional monetary support from “international development agencies, technology companies, philanthropic entities, and others with an interest in supporting democracy and development,” and its scope would “encompass the full range of media institutions supporting an informed and engaged society, including commercial, community, public service and citizen media,” stated the Fund’s feasibility study. BBC Media Action conducted this feasibility study and concluded that the business model of the IFPIM would effectively strengthen public interest media in specifically low-income and middle-income regions.
Additionally, as a response to ongoing media censorship, we can see citizen journalism trends rising as the public seeks alternative ways to access information. For instance in China, some individuals have gone great lengths to inform people on the virus and conditions in Wuhan. However, authorities have been continuing to silence dissent, flooding the internet with the official narrative, and increasing efforts to censor any content that does not cooperate. Although these measures are a setback, the censors do not stop everything, revealing the value of the internet as a channel of communication.
The COVID-19 crisis emphasized and intensified the urgency and criticality of press freedom and the protection of journalists as the threat of a “media extinction” which was already there due to pre-existing political pressures and financial threats. This is a much more encompassing threat than being an isolated concern for instant public interest and health. How the independent media sector manages to overcome or fail to overcome this challenge will likely determine the political climate and the global relations in the years to come.
As social psychologist Frank Asbrock argued that if in the past such times of crisis led to rising authoritarian attitudes and the subsequent silencing of dissenters, taking also current global political trends of distrust and far right populism into consideration, we face a threat of rise of ultranationalist attitudes. The lack of free press will only accelerate our entrance towards such a political atmosphere as well as being a symptom of this atmosphere later on. Hence, the cruciality of preserving a free media cannot be stressed enough in these challenging times where journalists are attacked for their search for truth, attempting to leave the independent media sector fragile.