Free press has always had its obstacles, but a pandemic in a new age of 24-hour news cycles and citizen journalism is unique. The devastation suffered across the globe as a result of COVID-19 is indisputable. It is expected that even once herd immunity has been achieved and a vaccine has been developed, the impact of this global disaster on free press will linger in our societies and governments. This article will explore ways journalists have been affected by COVID-19, and how it may deter the security of our universal right to free press.
How many times have you received a notification about the number of new cases in your geographical area? How many Google searches have you done to seek out information about the virus? Even a routine task like purchasing groceries requires additional information about modified hours of operation and mask requirements. Grocery shopping and personal safety are only the beginning of the reasons why access to information is so crucial in a time of extreme uncertainty. As media users, we want to believe that the information we access is reliable.
Understanding this, some countries including Algeria, Azerbaijan, China, Hungary, Indonesia, Iran, Palestine, Russia, South Africa, and Thailand have banned individuals and journalists from sharing false or misleading information about the coronavirus. As well-intentioned as this seems, it grants the party in power the ability to determine what is true and what is false in a time when the truth is largely unknown and often relative. The Electronic Frontier Foundation explains, “Such laws also give the government the power to censor, detain, arrest, and prosecute those who share information that doesn’t align with the official state narrative.” Though the motives seem pure, increased control over information can set a dangerous precedent for life after the pandemic, limiting the autonomy of citizens and endangering journalists.
The risks that must be taken to facilitate a free press have become more evident as a result of the pandemic. There is the matter of personal protective equipment: Journalists must be fully equipped with masks and any other necessary supplies so that they do not contribute to the problem they are reporting on. In an attempt to hear stories directly from those suffering from the virus, journalists approach hostels containing infected patients while donning head to toe protective gear. They risk their own health to document stories that serve as lifelines for those desperate to understand what a world plagued by COVID-19 really looks like. While many of us have enjoyed long stretches of self-quarantining within the safety of our homes, front-line journalists have no such luxury.
Even more alarming than the personal risks journalists are taking is the fact that some are also facing external threats of violence. In places where free press was already met with opposition, the situation has become even more dire. The Committee to Protect Journalists shares the story of Haitian journalists who were “assaulted by unidentified men at the government’s National Identification Office on April 2 as they investigated claims that the office was violating COVID-19 guidelines on social distancing.” Just as life-threatening is the danger of being jailed. The CPJ also reports, “with COVID-19 in circulation, imprisonment could be deadly; journalists are held in unsanitary conditions and forced into close proximity with others who could be infected.” Unfortunately, select authoritarian governments are turning to the imprisonment of journalists as a way to control the media’s coverage of the virus; a familiar tactic that should concern all those who support free press.
One of the most powerful tools for helping us understand how COVID-19 has endangered free press is provided by the International Press Institute. On their website, users can access interactive charts and maps that illustrate media freedom violations by region. The following note from the creators is included: “Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the free flow of news and information is more essential than ever, ensuring open dialogue and the exchange of vital information. IPI is therefore closely monitoring press freedom restrictions in this exceptional situation.” They currently cite 426 media freedom violations across the globe. You can view this resource at this web address and share it on a variety of social media platforms.