On April 21, Reporters Without Borders released its 2020 World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries on the level of freedom journalists have to do their jobs and bring news and information to the public. Not surprisingly, the report reveals that in the past year, a culture of hostility and violence toward the press was further entrenched in democratic and authoritarian states alike. On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, it is critical that these attacks on the press do not go unspoken. RSF’s findings are especially troubling amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which highlights the need for fact-based journalism to combat the spread of the virus. When journalists face barriers to freely and reliably report about the global pandemic, the consequences are deadly.
In fact, in at least 38 countries, Reporters Without Borders has documented press freedom violations, including censorship, arbitrary detention, harassment, and violence related to coronavirus coverage. Instead of partnering with the media to ensure citizens have access to accurate information and resources to protect themselves, governments have moved quickly to crack down on the media in order to control information about the pandemic.
Hungary’s nationalist government recently passed a “coronavirus law” that gives Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sweeping powers and punishes journalists who publish “false” information about the pandemic, with prison sentences of up to five years. Authorities in Egypt have blocked news websites for allegedly spreading false information about the virus. The Chinese government has disappeared journalists and whistleblowers, expelled foreign journalists, and imprisoned citizen journalists for attempting to cover COVID-19. In the United States, the White House has attacked and scapegoated the press to deflect critical questions. At certain points, the administration even barred government health and science experts from speaking to the reporters. The level of misleading information, rhetoric, and posturing has led some broadcasters to stop carrying the full White House briefings on-air.
These actions against journalists during a global pandemic have brought into full view what the World Press Freedom Index research has shown over the years: authoritarian regimes and populist leaders have been sharpening their methods of media repression and control. Some governments use laws that feign to protect national security, combat terrorism, and quash disinformation to crack down on fact-based reporting and imprison journalists. Others use sophisticated surveillance technology to target and intimidate journalists and their sources.
Even in leading democratic societies, press freedom has eroded steadily and significantly. Americans might be surprised to learn that the United States is ranked 45th out of 180 countries in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index. Last year, a number of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grantees were affected by a disturbing pattern emerging at the U.S.-Mexico border: Customs and Border Protection officials were allegedly targeting journalists and documentary filmmakers for secondary screenings, searching their belongings and electronic devices, and questioning them about their “propaganda” and “fake news” activities.
And today, the rules of engagement that guide our daily lives are also changing the ways news is covered. Social distancing requirements have led local government agencies to transition to virtual meetings, severely diminishing the public’s right to observe and participate in the decision-making process. In Missouri, Governor Mike Parson has barred reporters from attending his daily press briefings and tasked his staff with selecting reporters’ questions, which they must submit by e-mail an hour prior. In Illinois, parts of a key government transparency law were suspended due to COVID-19. City Bureau’s Documenters are finding that Chicago agencies are posting details for remote participation with short or no notice, sometimes with inaccurate dial-in information.
For women reporters and journalists of color, the hostile environment towards the press is being experienced in very personal ways. Vicious and racist comments on social media, threatening e-mails and letters, gross invasions of personal privacy, and sexual and physical assaults are some of the many deplorable ways that women and people of color are intimidated and attacked. The International Women’s Media Foundation reports that two out of three women journalists surveyed by their organization indicate that they have experienced online harassment, and 40 percent admit the experience has caused them to avoid reporting on certain topics. Reporting on the devastation and death of COVID-19 – many without health insurance themselves or basic necessities like masks and gloves – adds another layer to the stress reporters already feel, and requests for mental health counseling are on the rise.
So, as reporters work nonstop to cover the pandemic, often at great risk to their own personal health and safety, it is imperative that we, as a society, come together to sustain trusted news providers. We also need supportive institutions that defend press freedom and assist reporters in trouble now more than ever. Because as the world turns to journalists for information that can save lives, it is our job to protect theirs.
Dokhi Fassihian is the Executive Director of Reporters Without Borders USA, the US office of Reporters sans frontierès. She is responsible for programs that advocate for the freedom, independence and pluralism of journalism in the United States, Canada, the English-speaking Caribbean.
Kathy Im is Director of the Journalism and Media Enduring Commitment at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation where she manages a $25 million portfolio of investments. She is also the architect of the Jack Fuller Legacy Initiative, which supports journalism and media activities in Chicago.
NOTE: This op-ed can also be found on the MacArthur Foundation website and in the Washington Post Press Freedom Partnership’s May 2020 newsletter.