The newly emerged Covid-19 pandemic is a litmus test for the governments to ensure the freedom of expression and freedom of media during the crisis and secure that the emergency measures are not being implemented to censor news or regressive regulations are not being utilized against media freedom. Because clear communication between the governments and the population is critical in resolving the current crisis, it can be argued that the free flow of independent news is crucial in terms of informing the citizenry to mitigate the pandemic and preserve an open dialogue and discussion on the adequacy of the implemented measures.
Along with the pandemic, the so-called “infodemic” has been spread across the world that requires endeavor to contend misinformation and disinformation campaigns that can evoke fear and elicit violence (“The Impact of Coronavirus on Media Freedom,” 2020). Although some countries have seen the Covid-19 pandemic as a war to fight against, according to the International Press Institute (IPI), this crisis has identified wide-ranging restrictive measures against media freedom in peacetime. When the death toll mounts, the financial and economic crises spread, and the public responds critically to the restrictions of their rights, the attraction to control the media by the authorities increases, especially in the authoritarian countries (“Emergency COVID-19 measures must not be used to roll back media freedom,” 2020).
Nevertheless, it is imperative not to use the Covid-19 health crisis as a pretext to impose regressive regulations on media coverage during coronavirus, which potentially can remain afterward as well and would continue limiting media freedom and silence critical opinions (“Impacts on freedom of expression,” 2020). The recent research conducted by the IPI shows that nearly 421 media freedom violations occurred during the crisis, most of them in Asia-Pacific countries in the form of verbal or physical attack. Besides the latter, restrictions on access to information, arrests, censorship, excessive fake news regulations are some types of media violations included in the report (“COVID-19 Media Freedom Monitoring,” 2020).
In particular, although widespread transmission of coronavirus in Turkey, the journalists were excluded from the mass release of imprisonment (Kuru, 2020), and the second-biggest jailer Azerbaijan arrested new journalists during the pandemic because of critical coverage of the country’s response to coronavirus (“Azerbaijan arrests journalists for ‘violating quarantine’,” 2020). In a similar vein, the coronavirus crisis has strengthened the control tools to harry journalists in the countries like Hungary and Russia, where “fake news” laws have been enforced to threaten journalists with jail as soon as the latters publish articles that would not toe the government line (“Attacks on media in Europe must not become a new normal,” 2020).
Specifically, the Kremlin has been too quick to remove “fake news” concerning the country’s response to the Covid-19, forcing some independent media outlets to extract news articles critical of the government. Moreover, in the country’s Covid-19 task force, a “fake news” department was formed to counter alleged disinformation. As of 1 April 2020, anyone who spreads “fake news” regarding coronavirus pandemic in Russia, was at risk of being fined $25,000 and prison terms of up to five years. In the case of media outlets, publishing “false information” would cost nearly $127,000 (Litvinova, 2020).
Furthermore, in addition to publishing disinformation regarding Covid-19 risks, Russia’s Supreme Court specified that punishment is also applicable if someone discusses “fake news” publicly, etc. in mass gatherings, rallies, or disseminates leaflets and hands posters (“Russia Bans’ Discussions’ of Fake Coronavirus News,” 2020). In Chechnya, for example, president Kadirov made death threats against one of the Russian journalists who published information regarding human rights violations in Chechnya in the pretext of fighting the Covid-19 pandemic (“Rapporteurs call on Russian authorities to protect journalist Elena Milashina as a matter of urgency,” 2020).
Similarly, the Chinese authorities also increased censorship in the wake of Covid-19. Some American reporters have been expelled from China as soon as they reported on the country’s possible economic breakdown due to the pandemic (“China expels US journalists in escalating media freedom row,” 2020). Additionally, those Chinese citizen journalists and whistleblowers who were publishing content, not in line with the Chinese government’s official position, are being either silenced or detained outright by the Chinese authorities (Woodward, 2020).
Other major world power, the USA, has also seen heightening attacks of media freedom since the escalation of the Covid-19 pandemic. President Trump has utilized the coronavirus crisis to attack the mainstream media, accusing some of them of downplaying the importance of the situation and exploiting it to harm the President’s reputation (McCarthy, 2020). Already on 26 February, when Trump has initially managed to minimize the threat of coronavirus in the country, he allegedly attacked the news media, particularly MSDNC and CNN, tweeting that they are doing everything possible to spread panic in the markets, remarking that MSDNC is linked with the Democratic Party (“The Trump Administration and the Media,” 2020).
In a similar vein, in India, the news publishers have been forced to go in line with the official standpoint, following the Supreme Court’s decision to add the government’s official announcements in their versions of Covid-19 developments in India (Emmanuel, 2020). In Iran, where the death tolls are heating the new records day by day, the journalists, who have accused authorities of being mean in regard to coronavirus, have consistently been persecuted and threatened by the national security officers (“Iranian journalists hounded for disputing official coronavirus figures,” 2020). Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, all the “rumor mongers,” who disseminate “fake news” regarding the coronavirus pandemic, are being fined or jailed (Khitam Al Amir, 2020).
All of these examples bring us to conclude that in a number of countries, even in well-established democracies, the authorities are trying to silence the news organizations, citizen journalists or whistleblowers who dare not to go in line with the narratives of respected authorities. Many of the discussed examples clearly demonstrate how the governments utilize the Covid-19 crisis as a tool to control narratives, suppress news coverage unfavorable to their rule, and threaten journalists publishing texts uncoordinated with the government. Media freedom, however, is especially important in times of crisis in order to voice the problems and discuss the efficiency of the implemented anti-crisis measures.
Author – Sara Melkonyan
a participant of CI’s “South Caucasus: Politics in times of crisis” online course, implemented with the financial support of the Embassy of Switzerland in Armenia.
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Woodward, A. (2020, February 20). At least 5 people in China have disappeared, gotten arrested, or been silenced after speaking out about the coronavirus. Retrieved July 21, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.com/china-coronavirus-whistleblowers-speak-out-vanish-2020-2?r=US
Opinions expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the Caucasus Institute and Embassy of Switzerland in Armenia.