We must do everything we can to protect the freedom of expression. Experience shows that winning it back will be extremely tough once it’s lost.
“The challenge that we’re facing right now is a narrative being written by authoritarian countries, that their way of managing the crisis is more effective than how democracies are dealing with it,” Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me. “The democratic model could be badly damaged by this and would be very very hard to rebuild.”
As the health of entire populations comes under increasing threat, the concern for accurate and clear reporting is more essential than ever. When disaster strikes — and the covid-19 outbreak gripping the world right now certainly qualifies — domestic and local media outlets are vital to combating problems, including the spread of a disease that could decimate entire populations.
But in our hyperconnected and politicized world, many leaders are manipulating the news and pressuring local media to obscure reality and divert attention.
China, Russia and Iran are among the world’s worst suppressors and distorters of information. So their attempts to downplay the significance of outbreaks in their countries, shift the blame to opponents of their governments or otherwise disinform come as little surprise.
Yet some of the most shocking developments are taking place in well-established democracies. This week in India, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested a directive from the country’s Supreme Court that would require news outlets to get state permission before publishing any coronavirus-related content — essentially allowing the government to censor coverage as it deemed fit.
Fortunately, the court’s decision, which cited the need to protect “free discussion about the pandemic,” did not grant the government its desired right to view reporting before its publication. Yet the court still directed all news organizations to “publish the official version” of developments in its coverage.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has sought to discredit and intimidate journalists covering the pandemic. “People will know soon that a large part of the media have deceived them in this issue of the coronavirus,” Bolsonaro said in a television interview last month.
Meanwhile, Hungary’s strongman prime minister, Viktor Orban, who this week used the coronavirus as a pretext for rule by decree, is set to implement measures that would make it easy for his government to imprison journalists.
Simon told me that CPJ’s correspondents who follow developments in Spain and Italy, two of the European countries hardest hit by the pandemic, have also seen ominous signs in authorities’ dealings with the press. Some officials have tried to limit the ability of journalists to fully cover the outbreak. Equally worrisome has been evidence that much of the public accepts that such limitations are warranted.
“This is so profoundly distressing,” Simon said. “The response makes sense given their modern political histories, balancing authoritarian structures of the past with democracy. When they’re under stress, some of those authoritarian tendencies come back.”
Despite President Trump’s often-expressed animus toward the press, journalists in the United States are still free to question those leading the government response to the pandemic and to report critically on the many inconsistencies in official policies at all levels. We are constantly building a historical record of the decisions being made behind closed doors.
Still, Trump’s continued tirades against journalists doing their jobs are cause for concern. Like doctors, journalists are providing an essential service and must be allowed to do so without obstruction.
PBS NewsHour White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor has become a living symbol of a calm and reasoned press amid a general crisis, at times literally reading Trump’s own words back at him.
“Yamiche is a professional, at her level in the business, in a similar way that a physician is a professional,” Bill McCarren, executive director of the National Press Club, told me. “The mic in her hand is our thermometer. Do not take it from her hand while she is working. Let her take the reading.”
For the time being, at least, these briefings continue on a daily basis. It’s a sliver of hope in an otherwise abysmal moment that our most sacred ideals may survive this crisis. Some countries will not be so lucky.
“The press and the free flow of information play a pivotal role in the conduct of our democracy,” McCarren said. “The outcomes and exchanges of these briefings may not all be ideal, but this is, in general, good to see and reaffirming of what we all know to be true. Nothing fake about it.”