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The Covid-19 pandemic is being weaponized to suppress media freedoms

Brij Khindaria is a columnist based at the UN in Geneva. He contributes to media in Britain, India and the US. He is a committee member of the Swiss Press Club. 

20 September 2020

By Brij Khindaria

The Covid-19 pandemic is dealing exceptional blows to the media and some governments are also weaponizing it to muzzle press freedom, especially criticism of how their leaders are handling the pandemic.

Such developments ring alarm bells because they imperil journalists but the real danger comes from the clamp down on criticism leading to the stifling of news outlets. 

Healthy and well-funded media are essential for democracy since local reporters hold public officials to account and prevent corruption by keeping communities reliably informed. Importantly, trustworthy local media reports are imperative during Covid-19 and future pandemics because they are the best way to prevent misinformation and rumors before they go viral on social media. 

Many governments are using the fear stemming from the pandemic to crack down on political dissent and freedom of the press to take advantage of the public’s distraction with imminent risks, like job losses and economic downturn. 

David Kaye, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, reports that people “have suffered because some governments would rather protect themselves from criticism than allow people to share information, learn about the (Covid-19) outbreak, and know what officials are or are not doing to protect them.” As examples, he points to Belarus, Cambodia, China, Iran, Egypt, India, Myanmar, and Turkey.

The International Press Institute (IPI) says new laws to combat misinformation about the pandemic are being used as a backdoor for silencing journalists who criticize the government. It estimates that 17 countries, have enacted such laws, including Hungary, Russia, the Philippines and Vietnam. At least 12 journalists were arrested in Egypt this year under laws against misinformation about the coronavirus. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported 181 violations of press freedom related to the coronavirus till 2 September this year. IPI reported 426 violations related to the Covid-19 till 21 September, including arrests, censorship, and physical or verbal attacks.

Systematic violence against journalists by leaders determined to stay in power, as in Belarus, Turkey and Venezuela, causes severe damage because media outlets are already weakened financially by Covid-19’s impacts. Reporters Without Frontiers (RSF) warns that throwing journalists in jail could be a death sentence because of the risks of infection in overcrowded conditions. 

In a Covid-19 world, the Internet will house most of our news sources but they will need advertisements to help finance them. The demand for news and analysis is increasing just as bona fide media outlets, whether local, national or international, are losing credibility because of financial weakness, under-staffing or political interference. 

Critics often blame Facebook and other big tech, but some blame also lies with media managers who fail to provide content that builds the customer loyalty necessary to attract advertising revenues. 

The Internet is not a juggernaut that mows down the little people. On the contrary, it opens a vast global market full of consumers with very varied tastes. That allows small sites to fill niches with high quality content and attracts enough eyes to be lucrative for advertisers. The central challenge, therefore, is content creation rather than the inimical power of giant tech platforms.   

But hostile governments can and do crush the will of journalists and editors to fight. Drawing attention to them, UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet voiced outrage on 18 September at events in Belarus. “Journalists reporting on the protests have been arbitrarily arrested and detained, ill-treated, stripped of their accreditation or equipment, and subjected to judicial harassment,” she charged. 

That said, the remedy for Covid-19’s weaponization is better financing sources and business models that encourage advertisers to spend directly on media sites rather than through giants like Facebook. But building sites lucrative for advertisers is not an easy task even if the news content is of high quality. 

To be trustworthy, the content on a digital site is as costly to produce as for print media because journalists and staff costs are similar. At the same time, competition is more intense because the outreach of digital sites is global whereas a newspaper needs to face only local or national competition. Above all, to be financially solvent a trustworthy digital site must shine forth in an ocean of social media full of misunderstandings, half-truths and fake news posted at little or no cost. 

We are in the middle of a transition period. The power of digital media has not yet come onstream fully, but the position of traditional local media has declined sharply. Newsrooms are being hollowed out eroding the quality of news and analysis that a healthy democracy’s people need to protect their freedoms. 

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