Technology has both helped and harmed the struggle for press freedom. While access to online news sources around the world has increased, so has the number of bots spreading misinformation. Moreover, the internet has been severely detrimental to the newspaper business as a whole, causing a notable decline in revenue.
COVID-19 has been no help to this trend. According to the 2020 World Press Freedoms Index, media freedoms around the world have been suppressed in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In countries such as China, Iran and Iraq, the pandemic has exacerbated crises journalists were already facing before the lockdowns.
Though journalists have always weathered authoritarian regimes and threats to their safety, the pandemic has introduced a new dynamic to the media landscape. Several leaders across the world have censored journalists from reporting on the coronavirus early on and implemented harsher media laws in order to stem any leakage of information on the impending pandemic.
CNN Business reported that the pandemic could have possibly been averted if China had not censored early coverage of the outbreak. When the virus was detected in early December, China tried to establish a “new world media order” in which there was a hyper-sensitive control of information.
“Chinese politicians downplayed the severity of the virus in its early weeks, while police targeted ‘rumormongers’ and censors deleted any commentary that questioned the official line,” Pichetta wrote for CNN. “Wuhan’s mayor Zhou Xianwang later said he understood the public was ‘unsatisfied with our information disclosure.’”
Both Iran and Iraq took similar measures to suppress information. When reporters from Reuters pressed Iraqi officials about the virus, the government stripped the journalists of their license for three months.
The pandemic’s coverage is not only an issue in authoritarian regimes, however. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met with mainstream media outlets prior to the national lockdown and asked them to publish only positive stories about the government’s decision to ban individuals from leaving their homes for three weeks. Most of the editors present at the meeting praised Modi’s decision to meet with them and decided that it was best to primarily publish positive stories about the lockdown.
“Like others, these editors, too, seemed grateful for the interaction, and published reports of the interaction with their photos the next day,” the Caravan, an Indian long-form magazine, reported. “Kothari [the editor-in-chief of a major Rajasthani newspaper] wrote about the meeting on his blog and reproduced that blogpost on the front page of his newspaper. He noted that Modi had ‘inspired’ the press with his interaction.”
What has been missing in the Indian press is any comment on how the government has failed to protect certain minorities, namely migrant workers and the poor, who are being affected so harshly by the lockdown. Though The Hindu, a mainstream newspaper, did report that the government was not prepared for the lockdown, it did not cite this claim as a result of their own reporting, but rather as an allegation from political parties opposing the right-wing.