The pandemic vs. freedom of the press


The free flow of information, and the responsible practice of journalism, are critical for the preservation of democratic society at a time of global pandemic. Both public health and public accountability are at stake.

The Daylighter’s latest coronavirus brief takes a look at how press freedoms, and the public interest, are under pressure the world over.

Pressure on the press

Journalists trying to cover the pandemic are under duress worldwide from a plethora of new restrictions on what they can cover.

Countries such as China, which already severely censors the press, have tightened restrictions even further on what is allowed to be published.

Hungary, in the tightening grip of autocrat Viktor Orban, is considering new legislation that will allow Orban’s government to decide what is true, and punish anyone who publishes “false information” about the pandemic with up to five years in prison.

Other nations that restrict freedom of expression — such as Azerbaijan, Honduras, Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Venezuela — have also used the pandemic crisis as an excuse to crack down ever further.

As the pandemic sweeps through these nations, officials have detained journalists, revoked their press credentials, and further curbed the right to publish.

Should false information be criminalized?

Even South Africa, a nation known for protecting journalists, has cracked down, with a new law that criminalizes coronavirus “disinfo.”

Press advocates say that while false information is a legitimate problem that can lead to “panic and disorder,” making the act of publishing illegal is not a solution, but rather a dangerous precedent.

They fear this will produce a “slippery slope” that could encourage other, more repressive regimes, to enact similar laws that could be used as an excuse to more broadly curtail press freedoms.

Repression of journalists? There’s an app for that.

One response, firmly rooted in the tradition of accountability and speaking truth to power, is to simply make information about press restrictions prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic as widely available as possible.

With this in mind, Reporters Without Borders has released a new digital tool, dubbed #Tracker_19, that keeps tabs on repression, censorship and disinformation the world over.

View #Tracker_19 on the Reporters Without Borders website.

The tool includes a live map, and a constantly updated news feed.

By making the #Tracker_19 app available to the public, Reporters Without Borders is specifically framing press freedoms at a time of crisis as part of a broad struggle to protect democracy, the global ecosystem and human rights, and to hold power to account.

According to the Reporters Without Borders website:

“[W]thout journalism, humankind could not address any of the major global challenges, including the climate crisis, biodiversity loss, discrimination against women and corruption.”

Sources: Columbia Journalism Review, International Press Institute, Committee to Protest Journalists, Reporters Without Borders

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