Whether in superpowers such as China, Russia, India and the United States, leading European democracies such as Germany and Italy, or small countries such as Kosovo, the Indian Ocean archipelago of Comoros and the Kingdom of Eswatini, RSF has registered and documented many press freedom violations linked to coverage of the coronavirus crisis. In all, 47% of UN member states have failed to respect the right to inform. This percentage does not include Taiwanese journalists, who have been barred from the World Health Organization’s press conferences under pressure from China on the grounds that Taiwan is not a UN member.
None of the world’s regions has been spared the temptation to restrict or control coronavirus coverage. With 32 countries affected, Africa is by far the worst hit continent. Asia, where the pandemic started, has also been badly impacted. According to the data gathered by RSF’s teams and its tracking tool, Tracker-19, press freedom violations have occurred in 27 countries in the Asia-Pacific and Central Asia region. Europe, the epidemic’s second epicentre, is not far behind, with 14 countries affected in the European Union and Balkans region. In the western hemisphere, nine of the ten countries registered are in South and Central America.
Violations have so far been registered in only five countries in the Middle East, where Iran has accumulated the biggest number. The spread of the virus in Iran has been accompanied by a crackdown on independent journalists. At least 28 have been summoned for questioning, placed under investigation or arrested since the start of the pandemic.
The worst violations have not been limited to countries with poor rankings in the World Press Freedom Index. Incidents have occurred in seven European countries (six of them EU members) where the press freedom situation is usually regarded as good or fairly good. This has been the case, for example, in Germany and the United Kingdom, respectively ranked 11th and 35th out of 180 countries. In the first, journalists have been physically attacked during protests against lockdown restrictions. In the second, RSF has been concerned about the government’s aggressive reaction to some articles criticizing its handling of the pandemic. In Africa, four of the countries with violations also rank fairly high in the Index. They include Ghana (30th), where a Deutsche Welle Africa correspondent was attacked and beaten by a soldier while covering compliance with the lockdown.
“It is particularly disturbing to see the coronavirus crisis serve as a pretext for press freedom violations to grow and spread throughout the world, including in countries regarded as democratic models,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Instead of ‘blaming the messenger,’ as UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet puts it, governments should do everything possible to protect the messengers and enable them to provide the reliable information essential to combatting the disinformation that aggravates the crisis.”
It is particularly disturbing to see that, in some countries, it’s the presidents themselves who are responsible for press freedom violations. In the United States, Donald Trump has verbally attacked at least eight journalists in his daily press conferences since the start of the coronavirus crisis. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has also distinguished himself by his harassment of the media rather than dedication to combatting the pandemic.
When presidents in person are not berating journalists, the state apparatus is deployed to censor those who dare to question the government’s handling of the pandemic. In Belarus, an investigative reporter is facing a possible ten-year jail term for criticizing the president’s strategy. In Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega’s government has launched a major disinformation campaign and has obstructed independent media, in order to deny or minimize the pandemic’s impact. In Zimbabwe and Uganda, where a quarter of Africa’s violations have been registered, the security forces not only arrest journalists but also physically attack them. In India and Bangladesh, the police have been responsible for most of the violence against journalists. It happened even in Ukraine sometimes.
The pandemic has also allowed a number of governments to get laws, regulations or exceptional measures adopted that have proved particularly prejudicial to press freedom. While these “coronavirus laws” are making it easier to gag critical journalists in such countries as Hungary, other countries such as Cambodia, Myanmar, Serbia and Turkey did not need them in order to jail journalists over a single article about Covid-19.
These and the many other violations documented by RSF’s teams can be viewed on the Tracker-19 website and map. Named Tracker-19 in allusion both to Covid-19 and to article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, this project’s purpose is to evaluate the pandemic’s impacts on journalism. It documents state censorship, deliberate disinformation and their effects on the right to reliable information.