Index in the time of coronavirus
The 2020 World Press Freedom Index shows a correlation between press freedom violations linked to the coronavirus epidemic and ranking in the Index. This public health crisis is being used by the worst-ranked countries to step up harassment and attacks on the media and even to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times.
NORTH KOREA (down one at 180th)
Journalism impossible in the country with “no cases”
The authorities in North Korea, in last place in the World Press Freedom Index, have maintained bad habits during the coronavirus pandemic. With Kim Jong-un at the helm since 2012, the totalitarian government keeps the population in ignorance and ensures the official number of cases of coronavirus remains zero, while at the same time Pyongyang has appealed to the international community for help in combatting the pandemic.
The official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the only source authorized to provide official information to other news outlets, has remained silent on the subject. The North Korean authorities may have shown greater flexibility towards foreign media in recent times, allowing a greater number of reporters to cover official events, but foreign correspondents are not permitted to investigate the measures taken by Pyongyang to protect itself from the pandemic.
The dissemination of news about the coronavirus is also restricted by technical means, putting almost total control of communications, and the internal transmission of documents, in the hands of the national intranet, and also through fear as simply consulting a news organization based outside the country can earn a spell in a concentration camp.
Beijing has failed to learn coronavirus lessons and further tightens censorship
China languishes near the bottom of the Index and does not appear willing to learn the lessons of the coronavirus pandemic, whose spread was facilitated by censorship and pressure on whistle-blowers. Worse still, Beijing has used the crisis to further tighten its control of the media, banning the publication of any reports that question how it has been managed.
This has been made easier since state and privately-owned media organizations are all strictly controlled by the Communist Party.
By making extensive use of the latest technology, President Xi Jinping has succeeded in imposing a social model based on the control of news and information and the surveillance of citizens. Of the 100-plus journalists and bloggers now in prison, some held in life-threatening conditions, at least three journalists and three political commentators have been arrested in connection with the pandemic. The government has also tightened its grip on social networks, censoring many key words linked to coronavirus. The crackdown on foreign correspondents has been tightened with 16 being expelled since the start of the year.
THE PHILIPPINES (down two at 136th)
“To Heal As One” Act brought in to combat coronavirus and prosecute journalists
The coronavirus crisis has highlighted the main elements of the authoritarian course taken by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who often threatens journalists that do not follow the official line with death, branding them “sons of bitches”. At least two journalists are currently facing two-month prison terms for spreading “fake news” about the Covid-19 crisis. The indictments were made possible by the passage by Congress of the Bayanihan to Heal As One Act. The legislation gives the government powers to prosecute any reporter or news organization publishing a report that displeases the Duterte government.
Several practices typify the ruling “democratorship” since the hot-tempered president came to power in the Philippines in 2016. News organizations such as the alternative media outlet Bulatlat have arbitrarily lost their accreditation to enter quarantine zones to which only media organizations friendly to the government are admitted. A new stage was reached when a journalist was forced to apologise publicly for criticising government inaction over the Covid-19 crisis. Such practices are the prerogative of totalitarian governments.
MIDDLE EAST and NORTH AFRICA
IRAN (down three at 173rd)
The health crisis has intensified the disinformation excesses of the Iranian government
The suppression of information, disinformation, official lies - methods used regularly by the Islamic Republic during times of crisis and disaster - have again been deployed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
In February, the authorities began by denying how far the virus had spread after pro-government media organizations reported two deaths linked to Covid-19 in Qom. Two months later, it was acknowledged that the source of the infection was a seminary in the city which takes religious students from China. Once the truth was out, the government did everything it could to restrict the flow of information about the crisis. Several journalists who published unofficial details about the crisis were summoned, questioned, and accused of “spreading rumours”. One who tweeted about the health conditions in prisons was arrested.
Instead of informing the public about the reality of the pandemic, the Iranian government cultivates a lack of transparency and uses the health crisis to sustain its anti-American propaganda and to attack the sanctions imposed by the United States. The desire to show the world that Iran is managing the crisis better than the West, coupled with government disinformation (according to official figures, the country has had 70,000 cases and 4,500 deaths caused by the virus) could put the lives of millions of Iranians at risk.
EGYPT (down three at 166th)
The fight against “fake news” and reports on the pandemic
In recent years, the main weapons used by Egypt to control the media and gag journalists have been the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) and the State Information Service (SIS). It has used the SCMR to block more than 500 websites since 2017 on the grounds that they have been publishing “fake news”. Coronavirus has been used by the authorities as a battle cry to block more than a dozen new sites for the same reason.
Despite the lack of transparency surrounding the blocking of the sites, it has emerged that the offending content often calls into question the extent of the pandemic or expresses reservations about the ability of the health system to cope with it.
The Egyptian authorities made no attempt to show that there was any intention to spread rumours or disturb public order to justify its crackdown on the media and independent journalists. The SIS ordered the expulsion of Guardian correspondent Ruth Michaelson for publishing scientific data showing that the official total of those infected with Covid-19 had been underestimated. Apart from the health crisis, the authorities have continued to censor independent news organizations in other respects. The news site Daaarb was blocked just one month after it was launched for reasons unconnected with Covid-19.
IRAQ (down six at 162nd)
After the protests, authorities are now focusing on coronavirus coverage
The worsening conditions for journalists in Iraq since protests erupted in 2019 has put the country among those coloured black in the Index’s world map, which signifies “very serious”.
Five journalists have been killed in just four months. The various militias at large in the country constantly threaten the lives of journalists in an effort to prevent them covering the protests, repeating the allegations and also demonstrating the same ferocity as the police, who use live ammunition.
The Iraqi government itself plays a full part in obstructing journalists. At least 10 news organizations have been suspended for covering the demonstrations in a manner deemed unfavourable by the authorities. Since the start of the health crisis, the authorities have been focusing on reports about the Covid-19 pandemic. The Communications and Media Commission (CMC) decided to suspend the news agency Reuters for publishing a story that quoted three unidentified doctors as saying they had been ordered not to talk to the media about the crisis. The autonomous region of Kurdistan is also in the firing line. The health ministry ordered the closure of the television channel NRT after it broadcast a report that the authorities had deliberately overestimated the number of people infected in order to discourage people from demonstrating.
COMOROS (down 19 at 75th)
The coronavirus crisis highlights declining press freedom in the archipelago
Journalists in the Comoros have suffered a spate of breaches of press freedom unprecedented in recent years, coinciding with the disputed constitutional referendum in 2018 and the 2019 presidential election, including assaults, arrests, intimidation and censorship. The country, once a model for the African continent, has lost 26 places in the World Press Freedom Index in two years, 19 in the past year alone, the second biggest fall in the 2020 edition.
The coronavirus crisis is a litmus test for assessing whether this dark period is merely an aberration caused by turbulent social and political conditions. The early signs from the authorities are worrying and show that efforts to bring the media into line are continuing. A journalist with the independent daily La Gazette des Comores looked into why the Comoros was among the few African countries that had no positive coronavirus cases and discovered that samples from the earliest cases were not sent for analysis. She was threatened with prosecution by the government and the authorities tried to identify her source.
More generally, the crisis has brought to light an attempt to monopolise news and information by depriving journalists of the right to carry out independent investigations and to stray from the official line. Several media executives and publishers have been appointed to the “national coordinating committee” with the result that official statements are often front-page news but stories criticising the management of the crisis are often watered down or censored.
BRAZIL (down two at 107th)
Faced with the threat of the virus, attacks on the media intensify
The accession of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2019 has been the main reason for the country’s fall in the Index in the past two years. The drop is likely to continue while President Bolsonaro, encouraged by his associates and members of the government, routinely insults and mocks some of the country’s leading journalists and news organizations, maintaining a climate of hatred and suspicion towards those working in news and information. Faced with the threat of the virus – Brazil is the most seriously affected country in Latin America – President Bolsonaro has stepped up his attacks on the media
“The population will realize soon enough that it has been deceived by the media,” he said during an interview with the television channel TV Record on 22 March. Two days later, after describing Covid-19 as a “little flu”, he accused media organizations of causing hysteria. On 28 March, Health Minister Luiz Enrique Mandetta followed suit, describing the media in an interview as “sordid” and “toxic” and called on Brazilians to “turn off their TV sets for a while”.
No stranger to contradiction, President Bolsonaro ignored his own government’s quarantine regulations and the recommendations of the World Health Organization and was himself censored for his irresponsible attitude by the Twitter and Instagram platforms, something that rarely happens to a head of state.
EUROPEAN UNION and THE BALKANS
HUNGARY (down two at 89th)
Total indefinite control over the media under the “coronavirus law”
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, responsible for his country’s 16-place drop in the Index since 2018, has used the pandemic to crack down further on press freedom. The emergency “coronavirus law”, among other things, allows the European Union member country to punish the publication of fake news with a five-year prison sentence. The executive itself decides in the first instance whether a report is true or false. In this way the law allows the government to exercise direct control over media outlets, making them unable to keep the public informed as they should.
The law allows the government to legislate by decree for an indefinite period, threatening to destroy independent news and information once and for all, given that it was already in a critical state before the law was passed. Access to information was particularly difficult for independent journalists, barred from attending some events and from talking to members of Parliament. Making the outlook even gloomier is the fact that the powers entrusted to the prime minister have been accompanied by a hate campaign. Pro-government media organizations have called for the arrest of critical journalists, whom it calls “wretched idiots”.
EASTERN EUROPE AND CENTRAL ASIA
Covid-19 pandemic leads to tighter crackdown
In Belarus, journalists working for independent media organizations, as well as bloggers, have long been favourite targets of the regime. The health crisis has led to a tougher crackdown as illustrated by the case of website editor Sergei Satsuk. Well-known for his investigations into the country’s healthcare system, he faces a possible 10-year prison term for publishing an editorial in his online newspaper Yezhednevnik casting doubt on the country’s official Covid-19 infection figures. He also criticized an order issued by President Alexander Lukashenko to “deal with” media outlets covering the pandemic, accusing them of “sowing panic”.
Belarusian journalists have encountered a greater lack of transparency among institutions since the start of the pandemic. The health ministry, nowadays reluctant to answer journalists’ questions, does not provide regular figures on Covid-19 cases, creating an information gap that encourages the spread of rumours. Even the president himself has contributed to the disinformation. In a speech on 16 March he was quoted as saying “the tractor will heal everyone”, referring to supposedly healthy work in the fields and denying the danger posed by coronavirus. In the same speech, he advised people to drink vodka or take a sauna to combat the virus.