Credit: Giacomo Carra on Unsplash

This piece is an extract from a report by professor Damian Radcliffe, published by Thomson Reuters Foundation. It is republished here with permission. You can access the full report here.

Writing in Foreign Policy at the end of June 2020, Sushma Raman, executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, reflected on "the global deterioration of press freedom," adding that "an increasing number of attacks on the media have come in places where press freedom was once enshrined."

One of the primary reasons for attacking, or threatening, journalists is to try and influence their reporting. As Gavin Rees, director of Dart Centre Europe, has explained:

"The basic headline is that if somebody is threatening you, they are trying to get into your head and to destroy your resilience. That’s what they are doing; they are trying to shut you up, either by death threats or by some other forms of disparaging or threatening comment or behaviour."

Political figures in countries ranging from the United States and Mexico through to the Philippines and Hungary have all sought to erode confidence in the media, in trends that pre-date the pandemic, by criticising journalists and the wider profession.

Other institutions and 'experts' have been similarly undermined, and that multiple surveys show low levels of trust in institutions.

Covid-19 may further exacerbate these pressure points.

UNESCO warns that besides "the importance of the media and of access to verified information" government responses to the coronavirus crisis "could lead to more restrictions and danger to journalists, and the suppression of the rights of the press to impart information and the rights of people to seek and receive information."

Governments around the world have tried to "control the narrative" through a variety of means including new legislation and efforts to reduce media freedom.

As a result, many journalists have had to navigate reduced access to health agencies, government press conferences and covid-19 data, alongside restrictions on where and when they can report (for example, in hospitals, or due to curfews). In numerous countries, it has also become harder to question policy decisions and public health practices.

Lay-offs in newsrooms may further intensify these challenges, as outlets operate with fewer reporters and their financial situation worsens. One potential consequence of these developments is that it may make news outlets more susceptible to external pressures, and it may be harder to push back with more limited resources.

Government data and officials

Some of the issues that journalists are currently traversing as a result of covid-19 – including changes to response times for freedom of information requests, restricted access and curbs to freedom of movement, as well as other emergency measures – will remain in place after the crisis is under control. For now, however, there is no doubt that this backdrop is making a difficult job even harder.

In Egypt, a report on how official figures may be severely underestimating the actual infection rate of covid-19 led to Guardian journalist Ruth Michaelson having to leave the country. She had lived in and reported from Egypt since 2014.

Officials were furious at the scientists and accused me of 'spreading panic' for citing the scientists' report.Ruth Michaelson, The Guardian

"The report proved explosive," Michaelson wrote, "with Egypt's health ministry labelling it 'a complete disgrace to health'." In an article for Deutsche Welle she explained how online trolls attacked The Guardian and the scientists she had interviewed for the story, "before the Egyptian State Information Service revoked my press accreditation and the Egyptian security services demanded my immediate expulsion from Egypt."

"Officials were furious at the scientists," she said, "and accused me of 'spreading panic' for citing the scientists' report, later published in the medical journal The Lancet."

A newspaper journalist in Egypt commented: "Journalists and most Egyptians do not trust the Ministry of Health’s data on covid-19 cases because many infected people do not report their infection.

"Also, the Ministry of Health spokesman most of the time refuses to respond to the journalists’ questions… For example, when I asked for the rates of infection in every governorate, he – as usual with most journalists – declined to comment."

As one Kenyan journalist shared with us, reporters are often having to contend with the twin challenges of "restrictions in access to information by authorities" and "threats from authorities when investigating capacities in human resources and finance in response to the pandemic."

One TV news reporter in Uganda who participated in TRF’s Coronavirus Crisis Reporting Hub – an initiative equipping journalists with the skills and information needed to report on the pandemic’s impact on economies, health care systems and communities – shared how they had witnessed this type of scenario firsthand.

"My project was to investigate the quality of food distributed during the covid 19 crisis. Even though the story was fully balanced I was labelled anti-government by the Office of the Prime Minister and threatened. My station stood its ground because of the facts of the story."

Concerns about the accuracy of data, the risk of it being politicised, issues of access, and who should 'own' and distribute it, can be seen globally. These problems impact on the ability of journalists – and the public – to fully grasp the reality of what is happening in their country.

In response, some outlets are taking matters into their own hands. Six mainstream Brazilian news outlets reported in June that they would work together to compile and release joint statistics.

The move followed concerns, expressed by researchers, about the coronavirus data released by the health ministry.

Elsewhere, even if there is access to data, understanding and interpreting it can be equally difficult. 

Darren Long, creative director at the South China Morning Post, explained to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) that official coronavirus figures for China were "misleading" due to holes in the data.

"For instance, his team knew that the government did not include asymptomatic cases in the total case count until April 1, but it didn’t know if the government counted victims with underlying conditions as covid-19 deaths," he said.

The Wall Street Journal, Economist and the BBC are just some of the outlets to have highlighted inconsistencies in data collection in different countries.

Alongside this, in the age of covid the protection of sources (in terms of both data and people) has become even more important, especially in the light of government responses to points of view that may challenge official narratives.

Privacy International has rounded up some examples of these types of incidents, including Turkey investigating doctors who discussed coronavirus in media interviews.

Undue pressure and influence

Questions related to coronavirus testing and cases, as well as the trustworthiness of government data and information, can also be explored in the context of how politicians are potentially trying to 'spin' the crisis.

Covid-19 is the biggest challenge fact-checkers have ever faced.Cristina Tardáguila, IFCN

Fact-checking public figures is a key task for many journalists, but it is often not an easy one.

Cristina Tardáguila, associate director of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), observes that "covid-19 is the biggest challenge fact-checkers have ever faced."

"This is not politics," she says. "We have to work fast because health issues can really cause harm. When you debunk something related to politics, half of the country doesn't care about what you say. But when you talk about health, everybody cares. So the pressure for us to be fast is very high."

Yet, as we have seen, there are some concerns that it can prove difficult to be critical of how your government is handling the situation, which may be exacerbated by issues such as incomplete (or unclear) data, access to political leaders and their criticism of your reporting.

"In the first few weeks, there was a rush of news around the clock but not enough analysis of what was going on. As media outlets got on a surer footing, they were confronted with another dilemma – do they take government-disseminated information at face value, or do they question the soundness of policy decisions?

Each path comes with its own costs because the authoritarian governments in this region do not take kindly to criticism," commented an Indochina bureau chief.

In those circumstances, efforts by news outlets to address this, or to even ask questions about the government’s approach, have often resulted in retaliatory measures.

Examples include:

Iran – the Jahan-e Sanat newspaper was shut down after publishing an interview with an epidemiologist in which they claimed: "The figures announced by the officials on coronavirus cases and deaths account for only 5 per cent of the country’s real tolls."

Tanzania – Kwanza Online TV was suspended for 11 months by the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority after "generating and disseminating biased, misleading and disruptive content." The move came after the station shared a health alert on Instagram from the US Embassy, noting the Tanzania government had not published any numbers on covid-19 cases or deaths since 29 April.

Zambia – authorities shut down Prime TV, an independent television news channel, after cancelling its broadcasting licence. Amnesty reports the cancellation came after an alleged refusal by the station to air government covid-19 campaigns, as the advertising-funded station was still owed money from previous state advertising campaigns.

Image: Kwanza TV’s offending Instagram post, a reshare from the US Embassy in Tanzania. The caption offers a summary of the Health Alert for Swahili readers.

Not surprisingly, these responses can exacerbate some of the mental health issues, which are faced by many journalists.

"I covered all the materials about embezzlement of budget funds, lack of medicines in hospitals and pharmacies, the stalemate that people faced – I felt a lot of psychological pressure on myself from the authorities," said a Russian journalist.

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