By Farhana Haque Rahman
ROME, Apr 30 2020 – Wearing an orange jacket and face mask, Li Zehua, a Chinese freelance journalist, can be seen filming himself in a car. He is sure that state security agents have been pursuing him since he began documenting events in Hubei’s capital Wuhan, the first epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic. A second YouTube video, circulating widely since he launched his appeal, ends abruptly when two men knock at his apartment. He has just reappeared online after two months, saying police interrogated him and put him in quarantine and that he was well looked after during this period.
Other ‘citizen journalists’ like Li have also seemingly vanished after reporting and sharing images of the Coronavirus outbreak in China – inside hospital wards, in the crematorium, on the street. “The censorship is very strict and people’s accounts are being closed down if they share my content,” lawyer-journalist Chen Qiushi told the BBC in February. He is still missing.
Human Rights Watch says Chinese authorities are putting the same effort into trying to contain the virus as in suppressing criticism. In March, the Chinese government expelled 13 journalists working for three US publications.
World Press Freedom Day on May 3 reminds us that the media is facing crises on multiple fronts, exacerbated by the pandemic. Releasing the 2020 World Press Freedom Index on April 21, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) notes that the Coronavirus is being used by authoritarian governments to implement ‘shock doctrine’ measures that would be impossible in normal times.
The index, RSF says, shows a “clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and a country’s ranking in the Index” of 180 countries and territories. China (177) and Iran (down 3 at 173) censored their coronavirus outbreaks extensively. Iraq (down 6 at 162) punished Reuters for an article that questioned official coronavirus figures, and Hungary (down 2 at 89) has passed a coercive ‘coronavirus’ law.
The danger and long-term risks of suppressing press freedoms have been strikingly exposed by the pandemic. As the global death toll mounts amidst an economic crisis of unprecedented proportions, China stands accused of acting too late in warning the world about the timing and extent of the threat.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chungying followed up by questioning about the speed of the U.S.’s response to the virus after banning arrivals from China on February 2. Promoting transparent and free reporting in an interconnected world is a global necessity.
This is indeed not the problem of just one country. The World Press Freedom Index illustrates the oppression of journalists from the North to the South in what appears like a pandemic in its own right, regardless of the causes and of the political system.
Even the president of the world’s most powerful democracy, Donald Trump, has described the press as “the enemy of the American people.”
Yet it’s where institutions are more fragile or conflict is rife that the dislike of governments to be held accountable takes shape in typically authoritarian ways.
In Myanmar, eNay Myo Lin was arrested on March 31 charged with terrorism for interviewing a representative of the Arakan Army, a rebel group fighting for autonomy in Rakhine state. Bangladesh, on the other side of the border is seeing increasing violence against journalists.
Democracy is not enough to guarantee media freedom either. In India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi the press “is not so free, writes the New York Times. According to non-profit Pen America, “harassing critical writers and journalists not just in India but globally is a disturbing new low for Modi’s government that’s already put Indian democracy on its heels”.
But it’s not just governments making threats. Organised crime, corrupted officials and terrorism are also constant dangers. April 18 marked the anniversary of the killing of journalist Lyra McKee by a republican paramilitary activist during rioting in Northern Ireland.
So how do we challenge this kind of oppression and abuse in a world where, as Thomas Jefferson said, “the only security of all is in a free press”?
Ultimately, just as in a pandemic, the freedom of the press can only be guaranteed by a coordinated global effort and a focus on the long-term advantages of a more critical world. This means pressure to reinforce legal frameworks, including prosecuting harassers and killers, perhaps just as the international community would persecute war criminals, while offering a global protection for journalists. Finding and promoting innovative ways of subsidizing independent media, as well as getting big tech companies to pay for the content they share, is also crucial to help a free press to thrive.
Albert Camus, writer and author of The Plague, was also a journalist. As he once noted: “A free press can, of course, be good or bad, but, most certainly without freedom, the press will never be anything but bad.”