As we approach World Press Freedom Day, this year there is sadly little to celebrate and much to defend. Press freedom around the world is under siege, misinformation is rampant, and journalists continue to be arrested and even killed in the line of duty. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these three threats and provides cover to authoritarian leaders already intent on curbing press freedom.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has documented widespread efforts to suppress press freedom and censor news about the coronavirus outbreak. China and Iran are among the worst offenders, but countries large and small are limiting access to independent reporting on the pandemic. Hungary’s right-wing government has passed emergency laws threatening journalists with prison sentences for even a simple reporting error. In the Philippines, new laws punish reporters with prison time and fines for spreading false information about the COVID-19 pandemic, but the government is the sole arbiter of what is true. The CPJ is keeping a running tally on its Alerts page. Among other recent examples: Tajikistan’s Supreme Court has shut down the independent news site, Akhbor, for reporting on the country’s first alleged death from COVID-19. Tajik authorities falsely claimed there were no coronavirus cases within their borders. Algeria has blocked three independent news websites for reporting on COVID-19, charging them with “spreading false news that harms national unity.” According to the CPJ, though, those same websites documented several anti-government protests across the country over the last year. Earlier this month, Cambodian authorities revoked TVFB’s media license for accurately quoting the prime minister at a press conference when he said the government would not help taxi drivers bankrupted by the pandemic.
Closer to home, the CPJ has expressed alarm about President Trump’s attacks on the American news media. In a letter to the White House, it condemns “regular statements that delegitimize the role of the press; retaliation against journalists for critical coverage; prosecutions that equate leaking classified documents to the press with espionage; the harassment of journalists at U.S. borders; and limitations on access to information.” Once a champion of world press freedom, the United States is now a role model for repressive leaders around the world who are embracing the president’s tactics and dismissing reports they don’t like as “fake news.”
At the same time, real misinformation, particularly relating to the coronavirus pandemic, is sweeping social media and the internet. The World Health Organization has called the frenzied coverage an “infodemic” and says that false information is spreading even faster than the virus. Nearly half of U.S. adults report seeing at least some made-up news about COVID-19, according to a Pew Research Center survey. As I wrote in my News Literacy Matters post on coronavirus conspiracies, this tide of false information is extremely dangerous because it undermines trust in the press and public institutions by preying on people’s fears—precisely the goal of whoever is behind the false content. When people are overwhelmed by competing narratives, it sows confusion and drowns out the factual information they need to make rational, and in this era of COVID-19, potentially life-saving decisions.
The third threat confronting world press freedom is perhaps the most insidious: reprisals for holding power to account. Those reprisals in the U.S. are, for the most part, verbal. In the CPJ report, “The Trump Administration and the Media,” Leonard Downie documents the president’s harassment of reporters whom he frequently calls “the enemy of the people,” “dishonest,” “corrupt,” “low life reporters,” “bad people,” “human scum” and “some of the worst human beings you’ll ever meet.” Some have observed that the president spends more time attacking journalists than defending their rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.
But it’s not just verbal retribution. Seven U.S. journalists have been physically attacked this year, one at knifepoint when a man protesting California’s shelter in place order demanded a Fox camera crew delete a video of him. Two other U.S. journalists face criminal charges or fines, one for attempting to document the mass COVID-19 graves on New York’s Hart Island, according to the Press Freedom Tracker.
Contrary to popular belief, the United States ranks behind most other Western nations for press freedom and the protections afforded to journalists. Even with strong legal precedents, the U.S. has fallen to 45th in the World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries. That said, journalists encounter far more significant risks for doing their job in most other countries. The CPJ reports that a near-record-high number of journalists were in jail last year, namely in countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. This year, at least six reporters have been killed for doing their jobs while countless others have been intimidated, attacked, arrested, and imprisoned. To name just a few documented by the CPJ: A reporter in Sierra Leone says soldiers attacked him and confiscated his phone for taking a picture of a COVID-19 quarantine center. Serbian police arrested a Nova.rs reporter for her story about chaotic conditions at a local hospital treating coronavirus patients. And two Nigerian journalists were detained and arrested for covering their country’s pandemic response.
Journalists have always been on the front lines in the battle over information, but now they are up against leaders that are increasingly determined to use everything in their arsenals to keep their citizens in the dark. In the U.S., Fox News anchor Chris Wallace argues that President Trump is “engaged in the most direct assault on freedom of the press in our country’s history.” And these attacks are working to undermine the public’s confidence in mainstream news outlets, with potentially lethal consequences. Case in point: more than 6 in 10 adults think the news media has exaggerated the risks from COVID-19, according to the Pew Research Center.
While there is much to fear and indeed lament on this World Press Freedom Day, May 3, 2020, it is also right and fitting to celebrate the principles the day has stood for since it was established by the UN nearly three decades ago. Let us use this day to educate people about the value of a free press. Let us remind leaders around the world to respect laws that safeguard press freedom. Let us galvanize public support and financial resources to help local news outlets survive this pandemic. And let us celebrate all the journalists who are risking their own freedom and lives to hold those in power to account.