“They are breaking into my home. Alert the world!” This was the last tweet that Zimbabwean journalist Hopewell Chin’ono managed to post on July 20, before police and security busted into his house a few minutes later and, as his lawyer later claimed, “abducted” him and took him to an unknown location.
Chin’ono was charged with “incitement to participate in public violence” after he uncovered alleged procurement fraud in the health ministry, leading to the arrest and sacking of Health Minister Obadiah Moyo. He was released later in September but rearrested a few weeks later after being accused of breaching his bail conditions by tweeting about the court outcome of a gold smuggling case.
On 8 January this year, Chin’ono was arrested for the third time in six months, this time for “communicating falsehoods” by tweeting about an alleged case of a police officer beating a child to death while enforcing Covid-19 lockdown rules.
Despite a court order preventing police from detaining journalists doing their jobs during the pandemic, Zimbabwe remained one of the worst offenders of press freedom in the region. But it was far from being the only one.
Autocratic governments around the world have used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on critical voices and control what journalists have been able to broadcast and publish.
In one the most notorious examples, Chinese blogger Zhang Zhan, was jailed for four years at the end of last year for after being charged with spreading false information by reporting the Wuhan lockdown.
Researchers from the V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg found that two in three countries — including nearly half of democracies — exhibited worrying violations of democratic standards in their response to Covid-19.
By far the most common type of violation was restrictions on the media. Out of the 144 countries monitored by the V-Dem Institute, 90 had major violations of press freedom, with an additional six countries having some violations and eight having minor violations.
These excessive restrictions were particularly common in some regions: 86% of countries in Asia and the Pacific imposed some or major press restrictions, as well as 85% of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, 80% in the Middle East and North Africa and 69% in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. Even in developed democracies political leaders clashed with journalists over access to information and what constituted “fake news”.
Figures from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) show that the United Arab Emirates, Laos, North Korea and Eritrea had some of the worst records in terms of pandemic-related media restrictions.
International law does allow for some restrictions on the media in emergency situations, such as wars and pandemics. But the response needs to be proportionate, says Alan Greene, Senior Lecturer at the Birmingham Law School and author of Emergency Powers in a Time of Pandemic.
“The state isn’t given carte blanche in making these interferences,” he told Press Gazette.
“[The response] must be proportionate, and the European Court of Human Rights has been particularly robust in finding interferences with the media disproportionate due to the fundamental role the media plays in a democracy.”
Despite this, some countries have taken a heavy-handed approach to keeping control of the narrative. A report from the International Press Institute (IPI) identified 473 individual counts of media freedom violations that happened amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
Among the most common type of violations were charges or arrests of journalists – 201 total cases – and verbal or physical attacks against journalists – 178 cases.
Many of these violations are unlikely to stand up in an international court such as the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), says Greene.
“The problem, however, is that it takes so long for cases to get before the European Court of Human Rights – it is a court of last resort and you must exhaust domestic remedies first – that it may be some time before we get any cases before the Court on this,” he explains.
“It may be that domestic courts will enforce the ECHR; however, in countries like Poland and Hungary where the judiciary has come under sustained pressure from the ruling parties, this is a very worrying trend.”
Whether or not these restrictions are justified, they’re part of an increasing trend of attacks and limitations on the media, both in autocracies and democracies.
Reporters Without Borders, a non-profit which publishes a yearly Press Freedom Index, noted that media freedom has deteriorated by about 12% from 2013 to 2020. Some of the worst backsliding happened in the EU and the Balkans, as well as on the American continents.
In their 2020 report, Reporters Without Borders found a “clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic and a country’s ranking in the index”, indicating that the countries most likely to restrict journalism during the pandemic are the ones with a pre-existing poor record on media freedom.
Besides government action directed against the press, the report notes that there is another side of the pandemic that is threatening the future of journalism.
The economic crisis caused by the pandemic has led to a fall in sales and advertising revenue for many outlets, eventually leading to job losses and a further concentration of media ownership.
This is also unlikely to be the last crisis the world will face, raising questions about the lessons authorities and the media need to learn.
“Emergencies have a nasty habit of evolving and triggering other emergencies,” says Greene.
“This health emergency has already laid the foundations for a large economic crisis which, in turn, produces the very conditions for social unrest and, in turn, the incentive for an unpopular government to abuse emergency powers.”
Despite the restrictions, the pandemic has proven that the media plays a crucial role in keeping citizens informed about the ever-changing landscape of rules, restrictions and guidelines, as well as holding the authorities to account.
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