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New threats to media freedom with COVID-19


In a blow to press freedom, authorities are allegedly using the COVID-19 crisis to crack down further, foster distrust and deny access to information to media professionals, denying citizens access to the truth at a crucial time. PHOTO: Image Collab

With today being World Press Freedom Day, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, a partner of the National Endowment for Democracy, honours journalists who face unprecedented threats in their work. Reports from the OCCRP’s global network show new threats in the face of COVID-19 where citizens suffer as a result, and the OCCRP stand with journalists under threat, highlighting some heightened challenges they are up against. Governments tighten grip on information Drew Sullivan, co-founder of OCCRP, says reports from journalists at their 50 member centers across five continents show how governments are using a range of tactics to control coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak and tighten their grip on public information. He says these developments are a crushing blow to press freedom after years of decline, denying citizens access to the truth at a crucial time and in countries with poor press freedom records, authorities are using crisis conditions to crack down further, foster distrust and deny access to information. According to Sullivan, in Venezuela, masked agents of special forces arrested Darvinson Rojas, a journalist, in his home for reporting on the domestic spread of COVID-19. In Macedonia, where public trust in the media is already low, Saska Cvetkovska, journalist at the Investigative Reporting Lab, says “government programming has extremely wide reach and journalists who ask questions are being crucified on social media by pro-government media.” In Nigeria, the federal government took the opportunity to cut the presidential press pool of over 100 journalists to only 16 mostly government-friendly outlets. No responses from authorities Dapo Olorunyomi, publisher of the Premium Times, an online Nigerian newspaper, called it “a strong message about media control.” In Hungary, Tamas Bodoky, editor and publisher of Atlatszo, a pro-transparency and anti-corruption NGO, says no arrests of independent media have yet occurred under the new emergency law that lets government arrest anyone it deems to be distributing fake news. “But the stage has been set because they’ve been labeling independent outlets as fake news for years. Now the government has practically stopped answering any of our questions,” says Bodoky. Even in countries where conditions are stronger or have improved, governments are using the crisis to delay responding to information requests. In Armenia, Liana Sayadyan, deputy chief editor of Hetq, investigative news media house, says “journalists are required to have a quote from the government in every story but the government now takes a full 30 days to respond to freedom of information requests.” As journalists are made to wait for government replies to these requests, stories in the public interest become irrelevant. Sullivan says their network reporters already face great risk in their jobs exposing crime and corruption and these threats make their work much more treacherous and harder to do. He says journalism is not a crime and ultimately it’s the public that suffers. Journalism crucial during COVID-19 António Guterres, secretary-general of the United Nations, says the crucial role of journalism is even more relevant in the wake of COVID-19, when our lives depend on a balanced perspective of unbiased information, constructive public debates and credible accountability. He says the coronavirus has given new rise to flows of misinformation, as well as politically and commercially-biased news, amplifying threats to press freedoms around the world. “The dignity and integrity of journalist’s work are still under attack in too many places around the world with female journalists facing a double burden of being attacked as journalists and as women. When publications are censored, fined and suspended, we must voice that this undermines foundations of freedom of opinion and expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. World Press Freedom Day recognises media professionals whose work contributes to exposing injustice and hardship experienced by those whose voices are often silenced or threatened. We must continue to defend a free world press,” says the secretary-general.

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