May 3 is World Press Freedom Day. This feature is part of a series highlighting the current state of media freedom globally
Independent journalism is facing a growing crackdown one year into the COVID-19 pandemic as governments around the world restrict access to information and muzzle critical reporting, media and rights watchdogs have warned.
Authoritarian regimes have used existing and new legislation to attack, intimidate, and jail reporters under the guise of acting to protect public health, they say, and fear the situation is unlikely to improve in many states if and when the pandemic ends.
“Dictators and authoritarian leaders exploited the cover of COVID to crackdown on independent reporting and criticism. Some, instead of battling the virus, turned their attention to fighting the media.
“Countries from Cambodia to Russia, Egypt and Brazil all sought to divert attention from their failures to deal with the health crisis by intimidating or jailing journalists,” Rob Mahoney, Deputy Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told IPS.
Recent months have seen a slew of reports highlighting how media freedom in many places has been curbed during the pandemic.
In February, Human Rights Watch released a report COVID-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse showing how more than 80 governments had used the COVID-19 pandemic to justify violations of rights to free speech and peaceful assembly with journalists among those affected as authorities attacked, detained, prosecuted, and in some cases killed critics, and closed media outlets, while enacting vague laws criminalising speech that they claim threatens public health.
In April, global press freedom campaigners the International Press Institute (IPI), released a report painting a similarly grim picture and detailing the physical and verbal abuse of journalists reporting on COVID-19 across the world.
And just this week, Reporters Without Borders said journalism was restricted either partly or completely in two thirds of the globe.
It warned that authoritarian regimes had used the pandemic to “perfect their methods of totalitarian control of information”, and as a pretext for imposing “especially repressive legislation with provisions combining propaganda with suppression of dissent”.
It also highlighted how some had developed legislation to criminalise publishing of ‘fake news’ relating to coronavirus reporting, and used COVID-19 as a pretence to deepen existing internet censorship and surveillance.
In some states authorities had banned publication of non-government pandemic numbers and arrested people for disseminating other figures. In others, such as Tanzania, they even went as far as imposing a complete information blackout on the pandemic, the group said.
The problems are not confined to any single area of the world, according to the groups’ reports. However, some of the most severe restrictions have been seen in the Asia-Pacific region and Africa.
Journalists on the ground in these regions have said they have seen a deterioration in press freedom over the last year.
IPS’ own correspondent and an award-winning journalist in Uganda, Michael Wambi, said that the government had used pandemic restrictions introduced for the entire population to deliberately restrict journalists’ reporting.
Presidential elections were held in the country in January and, Wambi told IPS, there were “targeted attacks on journalists in an effort to curtail them from giving coverage to leading opposition candidates” in the run up to them.
Journalists were violently attacked by police at the events, and police later accused reporters of violating COVID-19 restrictions by attending them.
Wambi said Uganda’s Police Chief, Martin Okoth Ochola, made a joke of the situation.
“He joked to journalists that ‘security forces would continue beating them to keep them out of any danger [to their own health]’,” said Wambi.
Stella Paul, IPS’ award-winning journalist in India — which RSF describes as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists — told IPS: “In India, COVID restrictions were basically used as an excuse to intimidate journalists.”
Press freedom groups say the Indian government has taken advantage of the coronavirus crisis to increase its control of news coverage, using legal action against journalists who have reported information about the pandemic which differs from the official position.
Early in the pandemic, the government launched a number of legal cases against journalists for reports about the effects of the government-enforced lockdown on migrant workers while an editor of a local news portal was arrested and charged with sedition for writing about a possible change of state leadership following a rise in coronavirus cases.
“The last year has seen a lot of journalists detained while trying to report the truth about the pandemic, to get to accurate information and find things out,” said Paul.
Paul, who also writes for IPS, co-operates with a number of other journalists across Asia and says the situation for independent media in most other parts of the region is equally perilous.
“It is the same thing in many other countries. What we have seen during COVID is a lot of journalists, not just in India, asking themselves what will happen if I report on something? Will I end up in jail? They are scared of getting arrested,” she said.
One country where media freedom is seen as particularly restricted is Bangladesh. It came in at 152 out of 182 in RSF’s 2021 Press Freedom Index. The group said there had been “an alarming increase in police and civilian violence against reporters” during the pandemic with many journalists arrested and prosecuted for their reporting on it.
This has been made easier by the Digital Security Act (DSA) passed in 2018 under which “negative propaganda” can lead to a 14-year jail sentence, local journalists say.
The DSA was at the centre of the controversial death in police custody of a Bangladeshi writer and commentator earlier this year.
Mushtaq Ahmed, who was detained under the DSA in May last year for allegedly posting criticism of the government’s response to the COVID-19 on Facebook, died in police custody in February. An official investigation found he died of natural causes but others in prison with him at the time claimed he was tortured and some suspect he died of injuries sustained during his incarceration.
Few local journalists were willing to talk about their experiences of working in the country, but one, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Ahmed’s arrest and death had had a profound effect on the media.
“After what happened to Mushtaq Ahmed, many journalists were immediately less willing to challenge anything the government said about the coronavirus pandemic,” the journalist told IPS.
“The DSA is being used to harass journalists – many have been arrested under the act after publishing news critical of the authorities.
“Doing reporting under the DSA is the main challenge for journalists in Bangladesh right now. News outlets use self-censorship to avoid harassment under the DSA. If anyone sees a single item of news that is negative about them, they can use the DSA to bring legal action against the reporter and the editor,” the journalist added.
But while the COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly allowed governments to crack down on critical media, there is no guarantee the situation will improve once the pandemic ends, press freedom watchdogs say.
Scott Griffen, Deputy Director at IPI, told IPS: “Who will decide when the pandemic is over? Governments for whom the pandemic is a useful tool to suppress civil liberties may be tempted to maintain a state of emergency in some form, even after the immediate health threat is ended.”
He added that there were also fears that measures introduced during the pandemic may not be rescinded at all.
“The aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the US brought with it new anti-terrorism measures including unprecedented civil liberties rollbacks. Countries around the world have used anti-terror laws to crack down on critical speech. Similarly, we fear that emergency laws introduced during the coronavirus pandemic may become part of the permanent legal framework in some states, not to mention a culture of tracking and surveillance of citizens that is very unlikely to be rolled back. This has profound implications for journalists’ privacy and their ability to protect their sources,” he said.
However, despite the bleak outlook for press freedom in many states as the pandemic drags on, there is hope that independent media will continue no matter how severely they might be restricted.
“Journalists will still produce independent reporting even in the most hostile of circumstances. That’s their mission. You can have independent journalism without democracy. But you can’t have democracy without independent journalism,” said Mahoney.