Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by attacks on press freedoms and journalists around the world amid the Covid-19 pandemic. We've seen this pattern before: A crisis engulfs a nation, and its government moves to curtail, manipulate or shut down news coverage. But just because we've seen this pattern before doesn't mean that we should pay less attention to it now. In fact, now is a time to be especially vigilant.
In Iran, the government has imposed sweeping restrictions on coverage of the pandemic, including a ban on printing newspapers. Journalists have been arrested for their reporting, including one who criticized the government's failure to prepare for the pandemic and another who alleged that a local official had tested positive for Covid-19, as the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has noted.
In Hungary, a new law giving the prime minister wide-ranging emergency powers includes a provision prohibiting publication of "false information" about the pandemic, with violators facing up to five years in prison. Journalists there told the German public news outlet Deutsche Welle that the law has generated uncertainty over whether they could be prosecuted for reporting true information, could harm independent news outlets' revenue streams, and makes the already difficult job of obtaining information even more so.
In China, the government maintains that controlling information is necessary to combat the disease. Chen Qiushi, a citizen journalist who traveled in January to Wuhan, where the virus was discovered, and who posted videos on YouTube reporting that hospitals were overwhelmed, has not been heard from since Feb. 6.
This "Covid-19 crackdown" — as Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, has called it — is unfolding as we prepare to mark World Press Freedom Day on May 3. This annual event serves as a reminder to respect the press, defend journalists and news organizations from attacks on their independence, and remember journalists who have lost their lives while doing the heroic work of keeping the public informed under difficult circumstances. This year, that reminder is particularly resonant.
The enormous challenges and high stakes of this pandemic have created an urgent need for independent, timely and credible information. Moreover, the daily onslaught of misinformation has made this literally a matter of life and death. Yet many repressive regimes and autocratic leaders are seeking to restrict the press — even as journalists are working to hold governments accountable for their response to this pandemic and to report on the growing public health crisis and the concomitant financial toll.
Particularly in China, we've seen how self-defeating press restrictions can be in combating the spread of Covid-19. On March 24, Reporters Without Borders (also known as Reporters sans frontières, or RSF), a Paris-based nongovernmental organization that advocates for freedom of information, wrote that "without the control and censorship imposed by the authorities, the Chinese media would have informed the public much earlier of the severity of the coronavirus epidemic, sparing thousands of lives and perhaps avoiding the current pandemic."
RSF has created Tracker 19, a tool designed to evaluate Covid-19's impact on journalism (the name refers both to the disease and to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights). A map on the Tracker 19 website shows documented instances across five continents of state censorship, deliberate disinformation and other efforts that obstruct the public's right to information. RSF has compiled a list of concerning developments in more than 40 countries.
The abuse of press freedom is hardly limited to authoritarian nations. A new law in South Africa — which has guaranteed press freedom since its 1996 constitution and which enjoys a tradition of independent journalism — has made it a crime to publish "disinformation" about the pandemic.
Developments in India, the world's largest democracy, are even more troubling. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government asked the country's Supreme Court to require news outlets to obtain state permission before publishing any coronavirus-related content — essentially empowering the government to censor coverage. While the court denied the request, it ordered news organizations to "publish the official version" of coronavirus developments, CPJ noted. Journalists who have continued independent reporting on the pandemic have faced intense harassment, as RSF has detailed.
Responsible reporting from journalists who are free to call out mismanagement of the pandemic and deception by government officials has never been more vital. In February, the World Health Organization termed the swell of rapidly evolving information about the Covid-19 outbreak — including a flood of misinformation — an "infodemic." On April 14, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres referred to this "dangerous epidemic of misinformation" as "a poison that is putting even more lives at risk."
Against this backdrop of fear, anxiety and uncertainty, World Press Freedom Day takes on a deeper meaning. The growing limits on press freedoms not only make it more difficult for journalists to help keep the public informed, but also undercut the ability of journalists to help keep the public safe.
At a time when their work is most needed, journalists worldwide are risking not only their freedom but their lives on the front lines to cover this devastating pandemic. They deserve our appreciation — and need our support — more than ever.
Alan C. Miller is the founder and CEO of the News Literacy Project, a national nonpartisan education nonprofit. He won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting in 2003 as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.