Credit: Photo by Jose Fontano on Unsplash

There have been 426 (at the time of writing) cases of press freedom violations worldwide linked to covid-19 reporting.

That is according a tracker created by the International Press Institute (IPI), that documents arrests and charges, restrictions of access to information, censorship, excessive 'fake news' regulation and verbal and physical attacks happening right now.

This shows that in some countries, the coronavirus pandemic has been seized as an opportunity to silence and intimidate journalists.

At this week's IPI's World Congress 2020, we heard accounts from journalists across the world whose reality is exactly this. There were calls for greater solidarity from the industry and influential social media platforms to clamp down on propaganda.

Legal harassment

Supriya Sharma is the executive editor of independent news organisation Scroll.in in India. Scroll's investigative journalism has ruffled a few feathers, not least when Sharma had reported on the 'model village scheme', where a parliamentarian 'adopted' a village to demonstrate how government schemes can be best implemented.

Sharma had selected Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency and reported how people were going hungry during lockdown. The result was a string of charges, including defamation and misrepresenting quotes of an interviewee.

Scroll.in stood by the accuracy of the story and challenged the charges in high court. After two months, Sharma received protection against arrest but the case is ongoing.

She said that by virtue of publishing in the English language, she represented a position of privilege. She managed to gain wide coverage, but many smaller grassroots organisations do not have this luxury.

"Journalists working for grassroot organisations have always been vulnerable to intimidation and harassment," she says.

"A message is going out: when the most privileged journalists aren't safe anymore, everyone down the line will be more cautious about the reporting they do."

This is not an isolated event. According to the IPI tracker, there were 60 criminal investigations and charges in Asia and Pacific region connected to covid-19 coverage and 36 arrests and other forms of detainment took place.

Sharma called for international legal support and legal defence fund for journalists, as a growing number of independent news organisations are facing legal harassment in a bid to silence and intimidate the media.

Spoon-fed media

The best-known case in this region is that of Maria Ressa, executive editor and CEO of Rappler in the Philippines. In June this year, Ressa was found guilty of cyberlibel, plus two other charges in the Philippines and is currently free on bail, pending appeal.

Although that case relates to her story that alleged links between a businessman and a top judge, it is widely seen as a test of media freedom in the country, which has also suffered throughout the coronavirus pandemic.

Co-founder and managing editor, Rappler, Glenda Gloria, said that there is a compounded effect between shutting down legitimate reporting and an influx of propaganda in the country.

Access to official information has been tightly restricted. Leading broadcaster ABS-CBN was shut down in May at the height of lockdown. The media also has to make do with "one-way" press briefings. It means the public is being deprived of verified, timely and relevant information surrounding the pandemic.

"We are unable to physically cover press briefings, it seems like a one-way street, which is not unique to the Phillippines," says Gloria. Sharma agreed, adding that Indian authorities have also refused to answer challenging questions during press conferences.

"Therefore, it's a one-way information stream with spoon-fed media feeding information which isn't helpful to the public and sometimes even wrong," Gloria continues.

Social media does not help, she said, as it allows unfiltered propaganda to reach audiences before the media has a chance to investigate the information. Rappler works with Facebook and believes the social platform can be a force for good but the platform must be more accountable for its content. Fact-checking alone is not sufficient, the social network must become agile enough to counter false narratives that populate users' feeds.

This is larger than journalism, Gloria added, it is democracy itself that is in danger. The shared expertise of cross-border journalism will be crucial to holding power to account, suggesting that broader 'data dumps' would be invaluable assets.

Criminalising journalism

In southern Africa, the need for industry solidarity is desperately needed, according to Tabani Moyo, director of MISA Zimbabwe, an independent membership organisation supporting press freedom.

There are deeply worrying trends in the region. Cases like that of Ibraimo Abú Mbaruco, a Mozambique journalist who has been missing for months, and reports of assaults on journalists at press conferences. There have been 22 physical attacks by authorities on journalists covering covid-19 in Africa, according to the IPI tracker.

What is also concerning, Moyo added, is that whatever South Africa - the powerhouse in the region - does, its smaller neighbours will "copy and paste". South Africa's recent law enables it to jail those who spread coronavirus misinformation and this allows self-censorship to creep in. This could have disastrous consequences for journalists in the region seeking to challenge authorities.

"These are chilling effects by any measure," he says.

"What is even more daring is that these laws are meant to regulate in a fair sense a completely acceptable issue, which is that disinformation is a challenge. But it smuggles in a dangerous idea that journalism is a crime."

Other countries are also enacting laws without the usual parliamentary scrutiny and have 'taken this opportunity to centralise power'. It means that journalists need to scrutinise laws more than ever but doing so puts them at very real personal and legal risk.

"It is a trend that shows the region is in a fragile state," Moyo says, emphasising the need for international focus on what is a crippling time for press freedom.

Gag orders and limited movement

It is not different in Jordan, where defence laws gave sweeping powers to authorities to impose curfews, shut businesses and gag the press.

"It is understandable that the government has to take unusual measures to control the spread of the pandemic," says Lina Ejeilat, co-founder and executive editor of 7iber, an online citizen journalism publication.

"There was an unusual period of public trust, which is not very common, but we gradually started to see that, of course, there were restrictions to access information and the movement of journalists."

Certain professions were exempt from the curfew, which included the media, but the number of permits issued depended largely on the publication. Online media, like 7iber, were at the bottom of the priority list and were allotted two permits, regardless of the size of the organisation.

Even as the lockdown eased, the number of permits did not increase. It was only once the curfew was lifted that journalists had full freedom. This meant that for two-and-a-half months, 7iber had just two journalists working beyond the curfew.

Although the government wanted to block any attempt it perceived as undermining their effort to fight the pandemic, gag orders prevented crucial reporting. They also resulted in the arrest of journalists like Basil Okoor, publisher and editor-in-chief of the independent news outlet Jo24, for defying the gag order around a teacher's protest in relation to unfulfilled pay rise promises from the government. Okoor was later released.

Social platforms need to be more accountable for the narrative that was being pushed at the time, said Ejeilat. Ironically, a surge of bots on social media was manipulating hashtags and trending topics to put the blame on the teachers.

"On the one hand the government repeatedly warned of rumours and spreading misinformation," she says. "But when the crackdown on teachers' union [came about], we saw a spread of videos produced by anonymous entities and shared by these bot accounts."

Ejeilat admitted that if the government did not want to respond officially, they simply would not, no matter how many times you call. But she found positives in the ability for people to exert public pressure until the government could no longer ignore the issue.

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