Soon after COVID-19 had been declared a world-wide pandemic, many governments on virtually all five continents used it as a pretext to put constitutional guarantees on hold and to go after those whose job it is to inform the public. A series of laws, regulations and emergency measures have been passed, with punishment varying from small fines to prison sentences, that specifically threaten freedom of press and every individual’s right to free speech.
The crackdown on journalism affects not only everyone’s right to speak freely, but it also weakens efforts to tackle the disease. Access to timely and accurate information is a crucial part of every individual’s right to health; and by restricting access to information on the nature and spread of the virus, as well as to measures to protect oneself, governments effectively prevented its citizens from making informed decisions when it came to facing the pandemic. “There is no hope of containing this virus if people can’t access accurate information. It is truly alarming to see how many governments are more interested in protecting their own reputations than in saving lives,” said Ashfaq Khalfan, Director of Law and Policy at Amnesty International.
The first government to censor media reports and punish whistle blowers during the very first days of the pandemic was China. After that, many governments followed its example. In Russia, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov posted an Instagram video threatening a journalist who criticized his comments about people who pass on the infection being “worse than terrorists” that “should be killed” and appealed to the Russian security service (FBS) to “stop those non-humans who are writing and provoking our people.” In Egypt, security forces arrested the editor-in-chief of an online newspaper and forcefully disappeared him for a month after he challenged the official statistics of COVID-19 cases. In Venezuela, a journalist reporting on the spread of the virus has been charged with ‘advocacy of hatred’ and ‘instigation to commit crimes.’
Journalists have been prosecuted for reporting on COVID-19 in many other countries, including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Serbia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Niger, Uganda, Rwanda, Somalia, Tunisia, Turkey, and Palestine. Many also faced harassment, intimidation, verbal and physical attacks.
In addition to targeting journalists and media workers, many countries used COVID-19 as a pretext to introduce or expand laws against disseminating ‘fake news.’ As Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), said, “The worst regimes have resorted to all means at their disposal to crack down even harder [on the right to information, ndr] and, when these prove insufficient, they have brought in new ones using the excuse of an emergency or exceptional circumstances.” For instance, Prime Minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán brought in emergency legislation allowing him to rule by decree for an indefinite period of time and setting a sentence of five years’ imprisonment for “spreading false information.” In Myanmar, authorities threatened to prosecute anyone who spreads “fake news” about COVID-19 and the Ministry of Health claimed it would file criminal charges against anyone who speaks out about the lack of Personal Protective Equipment at hospitals. Other countries that resorted to similar legislation include Azerbaijan, Bosnia, Hungary, Russia, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tanzania and several Gulf states. The full list of countries that have passed ‘fake news’ regulations during the pandemic, as well as statistics on physical and verbal attacks against journalists and censorship episodes, can be found on the website of the International Press Institute.
The United States is also not an exception to what was described above. Police have arrested and assaulted journalists covering the protests against the police killing of George Floyd all over the country. There have been at least 300 incidents since May 26, the majority committed by police, including 192 assaults (160 by the police), more than 49 arrests, and 42 incidents of newsroom and equipment damage, according to the US Press Freedom Tracker.
The role of governments is crucial when it comes to defending freedom of speech and freedom of the press. They have a duty of care towards their citizens and thus they “must ensure that information about COVID-19 and the measures that are being taken to respond to it can circulate freely,” said Ashfaq Khalfan. “Individuals are entitled to comment on, scrutinize and criticize such measures without fear of reprisals,” he concluded.