#CoveringCOVID: At a Critical Time for News, Reporters Persist Despite Growing Risks to Press Freedom

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At a time when citizens need fact-based, trustworthy information to survive the global pandemic, reporters face mounting threats as they report on the crisis, three distinguished journalists said during a panel discussion Monday. 

“Journalists have the opportunity to amplify public health information and save lives,” said Washington Post opinion writer Jason Rezaian, who spent more than a year in prison in Iran. “We’re not going to come up with a vaccine, but we are able to share this information far and wide.”

Rezaian, along with Cilla Benkӧ, director-general of Swedish Radio, and Melinda Liu, the award-winning Beijing bureau chief for Newsweek magazine, highlighted several trends beleaguering press freedom during the pandemic. ICFJ Senior Vice President Sharon Moshavi moderated the panel. The webinar was a partnership between the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the Embassy of Sweden in Washington, D.C.

 

 

In many parts of the world, “politicians [are] trying to clamp down on media freedom, trying to use this as an opportunity to go ahead with things that they would have liked to do all the time,” Benkӧ said. She noted that, according to an International Press Institute (IPI) study, Europe is responsible for a large percentage of COVID-19-related violations of freedom of the press. 

Of the more than 160 violations of media freedom that IPI has documented during the pandemic, Europe leads in the two most common types of violations, physical and verbal attacks and legal charges, including arrests. Benkӧ, a board member of the European Broadcasting Union, noted that violations are happening in some European Union countries that “used to, at least once, respect freedom of the press and free speech.” 

Benkӧ also pointed to cutbacks by media companies, which are facing financial strain exacerbated by the pandemic. “The whole financial model has gone down the drain,” she said, leading to layoffs and fewer reporters scrutinizing the powerful.

In China, the “government is resorting to high technology to exert a kind of a ‘Big Brother’ environment on the media that is still not only very much in place, but we see it actually increasing, increasing the pressure,” Liu said. She warned that the surveillance hardware and software authorities use to track the virus can also be easily adapted to keep a close eye on the public.

The situation in Hong Kong is also worsening, as the space for media freedom is “shrinking, and it's shrinking fast,” Liu said. Outspoken critics of China, such as Apple Daily, may not be able to survive the pressures. Beijing is also using the pandemic as a “reset” for Hong Kong and “for dealing especially with foreign media,” she said. “Hong Kong has traditionally been a great place to be able to keep an eye on China without being in China,” but there is now a de facto expulsion of international reporters from Hong Kong.

It is even bleaker in Iran, Rezaian said, where  “the notion of a free and independent press doesn't exist.” Many good journalists “have been silenced and fired from their news organizations because of pressures from the government.” As a result, there is “a lot of bad information” about the coronavirus, leaving the population at risk, he said. “It seems as though they might be facing a major second wave because they reopened their economy.” 

Other countries, including Brazil, India and Turkey, are making “emergency rules” that inhibit press freedom as well, Rezaian noted. In the U.S., “nobody is really saying that we can't report on things,” he said. “But you have a commander in chief who takes a very antagonistic line towards individual journalists.”

As tensions rise between Washington and Beijing over the coronavirus, some Beijing officials are taking a page from “out of the Trump playbook with highly aggressive language,” Liu said. Nicknamed “Wolf Warriors” after the triumphant hero of a series of pro-Chinese action films, they deploy social media attacks using “highly nationalistic language, politicized language and blaming other countries to an intense degree.” 

Added Liu: “The diversity of types of disinformation and types of characters who are spreading disinformation from the Chinese government side has blossomed during this pandemic.”

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