How governments are using COVID as an excuse to crack down on the public’s right to know
By Sara Torsner and Jackie
Harrison (*) – The Conversation
Press freedom: A
government’s fear of scrutiny and criticism often determines how repressive it
is toward the press. The greater the fear, the greater the loss of press
Of course governments dislike appearing afraid, so they hide
their fear under the cover of “a reasonable excuse”. Such an excuse is often
related to protecting national security or the public interest. Even better is
the cover of a national emergency.
The non-government organisation Reporters Without Borders
(RSF), which compiles the World Press Freedom Index, knows this. And so it has
adopted a sceptical approach to what governments around the world have been
saying about how COVID-19 requires new measures for dealing with the press
during this time of emergency.
In its 2021
Index, RSF reports a “dramatic deterioration in people’s access to
information and an increase in obstacles to news coverage”, and that the
COVID-19 pandemic has been used to prevent journalists from accessing
information and to restrict critical reporting.
According to RSF’s data, journalism is currently completely
blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 countries.
Taken together, these figures represent 73% of the 180 countries assessed. Only
12 out of the countries ranked are deemed to have a free and favourable environment
for journalism (one fewer than last year): Norway, Finland, Sweden, Denmark,
Costa Rica, Netherlands, Jamaica, New Zealand, Portugal, Switzerland, Belgium
Since 2002, the World
Press Freedom Index has provided crucial evidence on the level of freedom
available to journalists across the globe. Their calculations are based on an
evaluation of the status of media pluralism and independence in each country,
the quality of legislative frameworks as well as the safety of journalists
The findings of the 2021 index raise serious concerns about
the lasting impact of the COVID-19 crisis on press freedom globally.
The wide spectrum of assaults on press freedom documented covers
a range of restrictive measures on journalistic reporting on COVID-19. These
are many and varied. In Iran, the authorities imposed measures to prevent news
media from scrutinising the pandemic-related death toll. In Hungary and
elsewhere, anti-fake news laws effectively criminalise legitimate journalistic
reporting on the pandemic in countries.
In Egypt the government has banned the dissemination of any
pandemic-related statistics except the ones produced and released by the
government. In some countries, including Serbia and Zimbabwe, new legislation
restricting the right of the media to inform on sensitive topics such as the
pandemic has led to the detention of some journalists.
A world of
At the same time as governments have formalised their
assaults on the press, a world of disinformation has emerged. This too,
according to the UN, represents an assault on journalism. The reporting of
public health advice has been accompanied by what the UN calls a “parallel
pandemic of disinformation”. Indeed it says that there is
“barely an area left untouched by disinformation in relation to the COVID-19
Favourite areas of disinformation span the origin of the
coronavirus through to unproven prevention techniques and “cures”. Combating
this disinformation crisis, the UN concludes, requires a recognition of “free
and professional journalism as an ally in the fight against disinformation”.
Sadly, though, there is not much likelihood of this
happening since free and professional journalism is acute press restrictions in
many countries which undermine the press’ ability to challenge lethal
Cases abound of how the “COVID-19 excuse” has led to the
inability of journalists to do their job of reporting medically endorsed
effective public health measures, or to challenge lethal disinformation.
Belarus, Brazil, China, Eritrea, India, Mexico, North Korea, Russia,
Turkmenistan all feature in the World Press Freedom Index as very poorly
Added to these assaults on the right of journalists to
inform, they also face disproportionate risks when reporting on the frontline
of the pandemic. According to the Geneva-based Press Emblem Campaign, at least 1,060 media workers have died
from COVID-19 between March 2020 and April 10 2021 while working to bring vital
information to the public.
The general public, often egged on by government, can also
present a threat to free speech. For example, Germany has gone down two places
in the RSF index and its rating has been downgraded from “good” to “fairly
good”, due to attacks on journalists by supporters of extremist and conspiracy
believers during protests against pandemic restrictions. At the same time, the
final year of Donald Trump’s presidency saw a record number of assaults against
journalists (around 400) and arrests of members of the media (130) in the US.
There are positives – but they are of a very familiar
nature. The Nordic countries including Norway, Finland and Sweden (ranked 1st,
2nd and 3rd in the index) are found to have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic
by facilitating enabling conditions for press freedom.
And, since Joe Biden’s inauguration in January, improvements
have been made in government accountability and transparency. Regular press
briefings have been reinstated and authorities are expected to communicate accurate
information about COVID-19 to the public. The Biden administration has also expressed
a commitment to a free press and the upholding of truth.
But – rather depressingly – the world needs more than
commitments and RSF has given us reason to demand that actions are taken to
protect global press freedom. Now, more than ever, it goes hand in hand with
the safety and wellbeing of the public.
(*) Sara Torsner, Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, Centre for Freedom of the Media,
University of Sheffield – Jackie Harrison, Professor
of Public Communication, Centre for Freedom of the Media, University of
Sara Torsner receives
funding from Free Press Unlimited. She is affiliated with UNESCO as the
coordinator of the UNESCO Chair on Media Freedom, Journalism Safety and the
Issue of Impunity.Jackie Harrison
receives funding from Free Press Unlimited, RCUK, UKRI, IPSO, IPDC. She is
affiliated with UNESCO as a UNESCO Chair on Media Freedom, Journalism Safety
and the Issue of Impunity.