COVID-19 Uncharted waters: media freedom under COVID-19 #

By Jamie Wiseman, IPI Advocacy Officer and Oliver Money-Kyrle, Head of Europe Advocacy and Programmes

March 20, 2020

Call for vigilance amid emergency measures: Worrying trends for press emerge

Global press freedom is entering uncharted waters. As governments around the world scramble to stop the spread of the COVID-19 and protect the health of their citizens, states of emergency are being announced and extensive restrictions put in place. Wide-ranging limits on freedoms are being implemented on a scale not seen in peacetime.

In a statement put out earlier this week, IPI stressed the crucial role that journalists and media outlets will play in keeping the public informed, while also maintaining open dialogue and debate, and scrutinising power and decision-making during this period of uncertainty.

Three global and regional special rapporteurs for freedom of expression, David Kaye (U.N.), Harlem Désir (OSCE) and Edison Lanza (OAS), have also stressed in a joint statement that the free flow of independent news will be more essential than ever.

Governments must therefore take steps to ensure that the rights of journalists are not disproportionately restricted. Limits on the media risk not only harming freedom of expression but also hindering efforts to stop the spread of the virus by depriving the public and decision-makers of accurate and reliable information.

It is crucial therefore that any draconian curbs to tackle the disease are proportionate and temporary, and that states of emergency are not used as pretexts to censor news or implement regressive regulations against media freedom.

This is especially the case in authoritarian countries where the rule of law is weaker and media crackdowns were already underway prior to the current health crisis. For these governments, the temptation to tighten control, avoid scrutiny and silence critical voices may prove too hard to resist.

Most importantly, what has started as a global health crisis could – with the mounting death toll, widespread job losses and the prospect of economic turmoil – become a period of severe social unrest testing our democratic institutions to the limit. Independent journalism is essential to finding an end to the pandemic and mitigating the consequences of the spread of COVID-19.

Worrying trends emerge

Already however, there is reason to be concerned that democracies and dictatorships may exploit the situation to implement measures that pose a threat to media freedom. While the global picture is fast moving and complex and it remains too early to understand large-scale ramifications, IPI has observed a number of trends that are beginning to emerge.

These range from straightforward censorship and suppression being conducted by traditionally authoritarian governments such as China and Iran to ruthlessly control the public narrative, to broader emergency measures rushed through democratic parliaments without review that go far beyond the powers necessary for the pandemic.

Other issues involve the licensing and testing of extensive surveillance of citizens with huge implications for privacy, personal data and the free conduct of journalism, and the rush to criminalise “disinformation”, setting in place powers to suppress uncomfortable information on the pandemic and silence critical media – powers that could last beyond the immediate crisis. IPI is concerned about trends in the following areas:

China: Censorship and repression

The first restrictions implemented against the media over COVID-19 began where the virus originated: China. After the outbreak was first reported in the eastern province of Wuhan in December 2019, the Chinese government moved quickly to keep control the media coverage.

As the death toll rose and news broke of government cover-ups, reports were blocked, news websites shut down and interviews with doctors censored. Meanwhile, social media posts containing health information or criticism of President Xi Jinping have been widely supressed. Access to foreign news reports through VPNs have also been increasingly blocked by China’s Great Fire Wall.

Where these tactics failed, the authorities began targeting citizen journalists directly. According to reports, at least three have disappeared while reporting on the coronavirus. The most recent was Li Zehua, a former journalist at China’s most prominent state broadcaster CCTV. Also missing are journalists Li Fang Bin and Chen Qiushi. Rights groups fear they are being detained by the authorities.

The initial spread of COVID-19 in China underscores the importance of the free flow of news and information to combat health crises: had journalists and others been free to report news of the emerging virus instead of being repressed and censored, the government may have been able to act sooner and more effectively. The lesson that media freedom and freedom of expression are allies in the effort to stop the pandemic is one that other governments cannot afford to ignore.

Foreign journalists have not escaped the censors either. Earlier this week Beijing revoked press passes and expelled 13 US journalists from the New York Times, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). While these acts may also be part of a broader spat between the U.S, and China, in reality such moves, as IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi noted this week, damage the public’s interest in receiving timely and accurate information and hinder common efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Targeting critical journalists

China is not alone in supressing news and targeting critical journalists. Media reporting on the COVID-19 crisis in Iran, not only one of the worst-hit countries but also among those that initially responded slowly to the virus’s spread, have also faced harassment and pressure from the authorities.

Using similar tactics, the government in Tehran, which has been criticized for its handling of the situation, has moved to shut down debate and quell dissent around the pandemic. The government announced it would “track” media reports and warned those found guilty of spreading what it deemed false information would face prison sentences.

Several journalists have been questioned by the country’s intelligence agency or Revolutionary Guards. Articles where the coronavirus figures contradicted the government’s official statistics have been sanctioned and journalists have been charged with “spreading rumours”.

Similar efforts have recently been seen in Egypt, another of the world’s worst violators of media freedom. On March 18, the Press Information Service withdrew the accreditation of British journalist Ruth Michaelson over her reporting on COVID-19 after an article published in The Guardian newspaper suggested infections in Egypt could be much higher than official figures.

The suppression of information on the true nature and spread of the virus undermines public confidence, slows down the search for the solutions and creates further dangers to public health.

Power grabs: emergency measures and surveillance

While there is currently a consensus that stopping the pandemic requires emergency measures, it is equally clear that the situation risks being taken advantage of by governments that will be glad for the opportunity to silence critical voices. States of emergency threaten to limit media freedom and in at least one case, suspend the right to freedom of expression altogether.

In Honduras, a country already in the midst of a serious press freedom crisis, President Juan Orlando Hernández used the emergency to suspend article 72 of the constitution which protects free expression. On March 16, the government published an executive decree initiating a state of emergency that also restricted freedom of movement, instigated curfews and revoked other articles of the Honduran constitution.

The move, roundly condemned as “disproportionate” by the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, was announced after a meeting of the Council of Ministers which by-passed parliament as it pushed through the measure.

While this remains for now an isolated incident, it will have a chilling effect on the country’s journalists. There are also serious concerns that other countries – even democratic ones – could follow suit.

Intrusive surveillance

Beyond freedom of expression, red flags have also been raised about the lasting effect that tough measures against COVID-19 could have on citizens’ right to privacy. In the last few weeks there has been an increase in the number of states testing the use of surveillance technology to track the virus.

The most high-profile case so far has been in Israel, which declared a state of emergency on Sunday, March 15. With its new powers, the government and attorney general quickly approved the use of surveillance technology, developed for counter-terrorism operations, against those who had contracted the coronavirus.

According to media reports, Prime Minister Netanyahu said Israeli authorities will use the digital technology to monitor the mobile phones of infected people. This data would be used to record where they had been and who they had met. Despite concerns over transparency and oversight, tracking by the Israel Security Agency began on March 17.

A further dozen countries are also reportedly testing similar virus-tracking software developed by the Israeli cyber company, NSO Group Ltd. The privately-owned firm has faced major scrutiny in recent months over use of its sophisticated spyware technology by foreign intelligence agencies to spy on journalists around the world.

While such tools may work to contain the spread of the disease in the short term, the long-term effects of this kind of mass surveillance on the work of journalists and broader privacy rights could be severe. In addition to data protection and privacy issues, journalists are directly threatened as they are unable to protect their sources and may feel compelled to self-censor.

Governments – authoritarian and democratic alike – are not likely to simply drop convenient surveillance infrastructure once the current crisis has passed. The danger of a serious and lasting erosion of privacy and free expression rights is therefore great. Intrusive spying capabilities cannot become the new normal and must not be put in the hands of companies with a record of illegal spy-ops.

“Fake news” overreach

Another major concern for media freedom is overly draconian measures to tackle the spread of “fake news” about the virus online. Since the outbreak, the internet has been flooded with rumours and conspiracy theories about COVID-19. Governments are right to tackle misinformation to keep the public properly informed. However, threats of criminalisation and heavy fines for publishing incorrect information about the virus could lead to self-censorship and disrupt the flow of crucial health information, further hampering efforts to contain the virus. Moreover, certain governments may be tempted to abuse the powers to suppress coverage that deviates from the official line and tries to hold them accountable for poor decisions.

Numerous international bodies have already raised the alarm over such measures. In their joint statement, the U.N., OAS, and OSCE rapporteurs said content take-downs and censorship must “meet the standards of necessity and proportionality”, adding that “any attempts to criminalise information relating to the pandemic may create distrust in institutional information, delay access to reliable information and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression”.

Despite the risks, a number of countries in Europe have already taken strong measures to address the issue. One of the first was Hungary, whose government’s own disinformation programme is well documented, has already issued take down orders to internet companies over “fake news” portals carrying sensational headlines.

Earlier this week, Bosnia also issued a new emergency decree banning the publishing of false news that caused alarm about the pandemic. Media outlets found guilty will now face fines up to €1,500-€4,500. Elsewhere, the Romanian government has also passed an emergency decree which, among other measures, allows it to order take-down notices for websites and news reports containing “fake news”.

While many of these takedown orders so far have involved posts containing blatant falsehoods, it is not difficult to see the potential for it to be abused in the future, especially in states where the ruling party is already engaged in censoring independent media.

Censors in overdrive

Similar developments have been documented in countries throughout Asia, where “fake news” censors have gone into overdrive in the last few weeks. In Malaysia, more than a dozen people have been detained by the authorities for allegedly spreading false information about the coronavirus on social media. Among them was award winning journalist Wan Noor Hayati Wan Alias, who was charged with “inciting mischief” over her social media posts about the pandemic.

Similar crackdowns have followed in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia, where dozens of people have been charged with cybercrime offences. In Vietnam meanwhile, fines have been issued for publishing information on coronavirus not verified by the government.

Elsewhere, both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have issued stark warnings about heavy punishments for anyone spreading incorrect or unverified information about coronavirus. The same is true in Africa, where according to media reports, Kenya last week proposed a law to criminalize the spread of fake news related to the disease.

In other isolated cases meanwhile, some leaders have even used the coronavirus as an excuse to amplify their usual verbal attacks on the media. Albanian President Edi Rama, a brash critic of the country’s press, used the COVID-19 crisis to send a pre-recorded voice message to every Vodaphone handset warning people to “wash their hands against coronavirus and “protect themselves from the media”. In the U.S., meanwhile, President Trump has also utilized the coronavirus to ramp up common attacks of critical media as peddlers of “fake news”.

As in the case of surveillance, even where attempts to crack down on misinformation regarding COVID-19 are seemingly well-intentioned and aimed at protecting public health, all such measures should be carefully held to rules of proportionality and necessity.

Access to information

A final trend that has emerged involves journalists’ access to information, in the sense of access both to government decision makers as well as medical experts and those working on the frontline of the crisis. In health emergencies, the media has a key role to play in disseminating important medical information.

In some countries however, authorities have begun limiting the ability of journalists to attend press conferences and briefings. While physical distancing is understandably a concern, alternative access must be made available to ensure all media are able to attend.

In the Czech Republic, the government has cited coronavirus measures to limit numbers of journalists and select media to attend press conferences. In Albania government updates are being released via social media and closed press conferences, limiting the ability of journalists to ask questions or seek clarification.  In Slovenia, the government has also announced it will broadcast statements live on TV Slovenia via the government’s press centre, reducing the ability of journalists to ask questions.

This trend is likely to increase in countries around the world. However, such a monopolisation of information, even in an emergency, harms transparency, reduces the possibility for scrutiny, and risks reducing public trust in measures introduced by the government.

Vigilance key

Concerns over the long-term ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic are by no means limited to media freedom. Many other human rights groups are voicing concerns.

While it’s unclear how exactly the situation will develop over the coming weeks, a concerted effort must be made by all actors to ensure that emergency measures are limited to the immediate crisis and a permanent shift in the balance of state power over basic human rights is prevented. Freedom of expression and the press must be protected.

During this time, IPI remains as committed as ever to ensuring that any act to suppress the free flow of news and information will pass neither unnoticed nor unquestioned – not despite this exceptional situation but precisely because of it.

In the coming weeks and for the entire length of the ongoing crisis, IPI will systematically monitor restrictions on media freedom imposed as a consequence of the crisis and share this information on our website and social media platforms.