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August 3, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:29am

Freedom of expression ‘bore biggest brunt’ of human rights erosions during Covid-19 pandemic, say campaigners

By Charlotte Tobitt

Freedom of expression bore the biggest brunt of human rights erosions worldwide due to the Covid-19 pandemic, campaigners have claimed.

Two-thirds of all countries imposed restrictions on media in relation to the pandemic in 2020 and global scores for freedom of expression and the right to information reached their lowest points since 2010, free speech group Article 19 has said in a new report.

Some 4.9bn people – two-thirds of the global population – are living in countries either in crisis or with high levels of restrictions over freedom of expression, Article 19 said. This is also higher than at any time in the past decade.

The starkest deterioration of rights was in freedom of assembly and public participation in decision-making as protests in many countries, including Belarus and Thailand, were met with oppressive state responses.

This in turn puts journalists at risk of violence, arrest and harassment, as UNESCO warned last year.

Article 19 executive director Quinn McKew told Press Gazette the most “significantly concerning” development was how the pandemic was being used as “yet another lever for governments trying to assert control over the independence of media”.

Speaking from Washington DC, she warned that only by protecting freedom of expression can democracies be safeguarded.

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“Freedom of expression bore the biggest brunt of the erosion of rights during the pandemic, and within that we saw a significant attack on journalists in particular in terms of their ability to report information,” McKew said.

“There were a lot of laws that were passed that made it a crime to report anything other than the government’s official narrative about what was happening. So you saw a lot of journalists being threatened or threatened with fines fined or imprisoned because they were not reporting what the government wanted them to report.

“The role of journalists is not to be the public relations department for governments – it’s to question, it’s to find the truth and to let people know the truth.”

[Read more: Journalists claim alternative Covid-19 news has been ‘censored’ to create ‘one official narrative’]

Article 19 pointed to International Press Institute figures showing there were 620 press freedom violations recorded globally in the first 14 months of the pandemic.

Of these, 34% were physical and verbal attacks on journalists, 34% were arrests or charges, and 14% were government-imposed restrictions on access to information. Arrests of journalists from March to May last year quadrupled worldwide.

Article 19 said seven countries with a combined population of 72m – led by Sri Lanka, Belarus, Guinea, Hong Kong and Slovenia – saw a significant decline in their freedom of expression environment in 2020 and that “many more” countries are in decline than improvement.

Some 85% of the population in Asia and the Pacific lives in countries where free expression is in crisis or highly restricted – an increase of 39% since 2010 by Article 19’s measure.

The score for the Americas is at its lowest in a decade, not a single country in Africa had a good score, and in Europe and Central Asia 34% of the population lives in an “in crisis” country.

UK freedom of expression

Article 19 ranked the UK 28th in the world in its freedom of expression index. McKew told Press Gazette that although the country is “relatively good” on the issues, with a “really robust media environment “, there “certainly is room for improvement”.

Concerns in the UK included the “alarming number of attacks” on the right to protest due to Covid-19 legislation and the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill which led to “Kill the Bill” demonstrations this year.

Article 19 has also raised concerns over proposed crackdowns on online crime, including the Online Safety Bill, saying it is wary of “legal frameworks that would give either private companies or regulators broad powers to control or censor what people get to see or say online”.

McKew suggested the Online Safety Bill goes “a little bit too far” in pushing companies to take down content with insufficient right of appeal.

[Read more: Peers ‘remain to be convinced’ Online Safety Bill protections for journalism are enough]

Article 19 also raised concerns about governments around the world, including in the UK, not enforcing Freedom of Information deadlines during the Covid-19 pandemic due to staffing and remote working issues.

In the UK the Information Commissioner’s Office said it would not penalise public authorities for failing to meet FoI deadlines during the crisis.

McKew warned that this becomes a problem without an end date built into legislation as governments can end up with a “much lesser burden” to respond. She also suggested it came at a time when people should have had a right to certain categories of information more than ever.

“Perhaps there should have been certain priorities or information that were categorised where it was absolutely essential for people to respond to Freedom of Information requests, so for example on health information or other population data,” she said.

“There wasn’t that urgency that was given in those circumstances so it helped to create an environment, which we saw globally, where there was more opacity in the media system and it was harder to find out what was actually going on just at the moment when people were most concerned about what was going on.”

[Read more: UK ministers’ refusal to be quizzed by media cited in report on worsening global press freedom in 2019]

US freedom of expression

The US, ranked 31st in Article 19’s rankings but still in its “open” category, also saw erosion of protest rights.

McKew said: “We’ve seen this through many authoritarian governments around the world. It’s very disturbing that it’s happening in the United States, that they’d be adopting some of the same tactics that you see in Belarus or Turkey or Russia.”

She also warned that, overall, the US media environment is in a “pretty significant period of crisis” because of both a continuing failure to find a sustainable financial model and the consolidation of news provider ownership.

“We’re really seeing a really worrying decline of media diversity in the United States because of the financial pressures that have come down in the media environment,” McKew said.

Asked how this compares to the UK and other countries she added: “Media sustainability and media consolidation is a challenge in most places in the world and the UK’s not immune to that, but it seems more acute in the United States at the present time.

“The press media still have a generally robust environment in the UK, although under significant and increasing pressures.”

Picture: Reuters/ John Sibley

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