Governments around the world are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to justify — or to divert attention from — crackdowns on press freedom.
Media tycoon Jimmy Lai was arrested in Hong Kong earlier in August as police enforced a new national security law. In June, journalist Maria Ressa was convicted of “cyber libel” in the Philippines. In Egypt, at least 12 journalists have been arrested this year under laws against “spreading misinformation” related to the coronavirus.
In some cases, regimes have moved to curb alleged misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic that doesn’t align with official proclamations about its spread or severity. In others, the pandemic serves as a distraction by directing national attention away from these incidents.
Egypt, for instance, has been jailing young journalists such as Nora Younis, editor-in-chief of the al-Manassa news agency, who according to the International Press Institute was arrested on June 24. In Russia, the AP found at least nine cases against ordinary Russians accused of spreading “untrue information” on social media and via messenger apps, with at least three of them receiving significant fines.
The IPI has been tracking media freedom violations since the pandemic began. Such repression includes arrests and charges, restrictions to access to information, censorship, excessive fake news regulation, and physical attack.
Incomplete figures make it difficult to say whether such crackdowns are on the rise. At least 17 countries, including Hungary, Russia, the Philippines and Vietnam, have enacted new laws ostensibly intended to fight misinformation about the coronavirus, according to an IPI tally. In reality, those measures have actually served as pretexts to fine or jail journalists who are critical of the government, the organization said.
In Hungary, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban passed a coronavirus law that could mean up to five years in prison for false information. Russia can fine people up to $25,000 or imprison them for five years if they're deemed to have spread false information about the virus. Media outlets can be fined up to $127,000, according to the IPI.
The Committee to Protect Journalists has tracked 163 violations of press freedom related to the coronavirus this year as of July 29. The group says its data is not comprehensive. The IPI has tracked 421 violations related to the virus, including arrests, censorship, excessive “fake news” regulation and physical or verbal attacks.
“We see an ongoing crackdown on the press that is compounded by the coronavirus," said Courtney Radsch, CPJ’s advocacy director.
Even incidents unrelated to alleged pandemic misinformation can escape broader notice amid the flood of coronavirus news. Jimmy Lai’s arrest in Hong Kong, for instance, shortly followed the enactment of a new national security law that gives China more power to squash dissent in Hong Kong. Lai operates Apple Daily, a feisty pro-democracy tabloid that often criticizes China’s Communist Party-led government.
The libel convictions of Ressa and another journalist were also unrelated to COVID-19. But Radsch said the pandemic can serve as a distraction for such cases that might otherwise have gotten more international attention.
“There’s just much less attention being paid to a lot of this since people are just caught up in other news.," she said. “It's difficult to break through the morass to raise concerns and public concerns about crackdowns."
That's been exacerbated by the absence of a robust response from the U.S. under President Donald Trump, experts said.
“In the age before Trump, clearly the United States would be the one advocating for press freedom and independent media worldwide," said David Kaye, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, and a former UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression. Trump routinely refers to the mainstream press as “fake news.”
While the Trump administration sanctioned Chinese officials, including Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, over Lai's arrest, its traditional rhetoric in support of the free press has fallen short. “We don’t see the robust condemnation that we would expect from the U.S. over press freedom crackdowns or deaths of journalists in custody,” Radsch said. The administration also could have done more for Ressa, she said, as the journalist holds American as well as Filipino citizenship.
“We have not seen a robust call at the highest level for charges to be dropped," she said. “It's not what we expect."
The U.S. does still intervene on occasion. For example, U.S. negotiators have been active negotiations over Austin Tice, a Houston journalist and veteran held in Syria. But that is a rare exception.
Kaye said increasing media repression is a direct consequence of a global rise in authoritarian government.
“Authoritarians and populists of the last several years have been elected into office," he said. “There’s been pressure on independent media, that hasn’t changed, and that has been happening in parallel prior to and into COVID."
The pandemic “has added a new vector toward repression,” he said. “There is existing repression that’s continued, and COVID-oriented repression that’s new.”