Emergency measures introduced during the coronavirus pandemic resulted in a rise in arrests for “fake news,” journalists being denied access to briefings or health officials, and news websites being blocked, media rights experts say.
A year after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, journalists in several countries are still feeling the impact of laws and regulations as governments sought to control the narrative or silence critical reporting.
Media rights groups say the restrictions have denied citizens access to news and information.
“The pandemic presents a grave threat to press freedom, at a time when the dissemination of vital, factual information is vital to people’s lives,” Amy Slipowitz, research manager for Freedom House’s annual “Freedom in the World” report, told VOA. “Journalists have been subjected to arrests, violence, and intimidation, and governments have exerted control over content.”
In its 2020 report, “Democracy under Lockdown,” Freedom House found that 91 out of 192 countries imposed some form of restriction on media as part of their official pandemic response.
Laws and measures were introduced to try to protect and promote safety, but in several countries the regulations were used to restrict or harass media.
The Vienna-based International Press Institute found that emergency measures often included provisions aimed at combatting “fake news” that were used to jail or limit free speech.
“Some governments, especially authoritarian ones, apparently believe that the health crisis necessitates limiting press freedom and freedom of expression. The truth is the opposite: the health crisis has made press freedom more important than ever,” Scott Griffen, deputy director at IPI, told VOA.
“The tremendous impact and changes we have seen in so many parts of our society make it essential that journalism is allowed to perform its watchdog role,” Griffen said.
New regulations are still being introduced one year into the pandemic. Malaysia earlier this month used expanded powers under emergency laws to impose tougher penalties for what the government deems false news, including jail terms of up to three years.
Such laws “claim to be about combating disinformation but, in many cases, are actually about repressing critical speech,” Griffen said.
The pandemic has given authoritarian regimes license to crackdown on dissent and critics, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said.
“Countries with poor press freedom track records like China, Egypt, and Turkey are certainly at the forefront when it comes to countries that have made every effort to stamp out journalism,” Courtney Radsch, CPJ’s advocacy director told VOA.
Authorities retaliated against reporters just for doing their job and created conditions that made coverage “near impossible,” Radsch said, adding, “[These countries] lead the world in the imprisonment of journalists, weaponizing public health or emergency laws and putting jailed journalists at deadly risk.”
In its 2020 census of journalists jailed globally, the press freedom group recorded a record 274 behind bars, including several arrested over their coverage of the pandemic. At least two died from COVID-19, CPJ found.
CPJ is among the media and human rights groups that have called on governments to release journalists and political prisoners from custody because of the increased health risks from COVID-19.
“We’d like to see all journalists released from prison, where the coronavirus could amount to a death sentence,” Radsch said, adding that the CPJ also advocates for “the roll back of oppressive legislation, and safeguards put in place for journalists who are on the frontlines of the pandemic.”
Over the past year, the IPI tracked more than 600 COVID 19-related press freedom violations, including arrests over false news accusations, website blocking, and journalists restricted from attending news conferences or speaking with health officials.
“The Chinese government’s actions to crack down on citizen journalists who were among the first to report on the virus and warn about its impact cannot be forgotten,” Griffen said. “[But] several other countries have stood out in terms of their heavy-handed response to journalistic scrutiny.”
India, with 84 cases of journalists being brought in for questioning or charged over COVID-related coverage, topped the IPI’s press freedom tracker, but Griffen said Russia also expanded “fake news” laws to target critical reporting and Zimbabwe stood out as one of the worst offenders in Africa, with several arrests, including of investigative reporter Hopewell Chin’ono.
Limited access to information and website blocking were the biggest issues in Latin America, where Venezuela was the most restrictive country, with the IPI documenting 66 violations.
Slipowitz, from Freedom House, said restrictive policies directed at the media “were most acutely felt in struggling democracies and highly repressive states.”
Cases that stood out for her included China in December sentencing citizen journalist Zhang Zhan to four years in prison for her reporting from Wuhan, and Egypt expelling a reporter from the British outlet The Guardian, because of critical coverage of the government’s pandemic response.
Rights groups are now looking for signs that repressive laws ushered in as part of emergency measures will be rolled back.
“IPI said from the beginning that any restrictions or interferences with journalists’ rights needed to be proportionate, necessary, and time-limited,” Griffen said. “We are concerned that new forms of interference with freedom of expression introduced during the pandemic will stay.”