Expert Commentary

How COVID-19 is threatening press freedom: An interview with Joel Simon

The executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists warns that a press crackdown during the coronavirus pandemic could lead to long-term curbs on the global information system.

(Austin Distel, Unsplash)

As political leaders around the globe battle the coronavirus, a growing number of national governments are using the crisis to punish journalists for their critical reporting. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists is an independent, non-profit organization that monitors press freedom violations throughout the world. In a recent column for Columbia Journalism Review, the CPJ’s executive director, Joel Simon, warns that the news media crackdown could lead to long-term curbs on the global information system.

“Amid efforts to beat back a global pandemic of a kind unseen in more than a century, and to prop up a global economy on the brink of depression, it’s hard to focus on long-term consequences,” he writes. “But we must be mindful that when we get to the other side of the pandemic, we may be left with a narrative, being written by China, that government control over information was essential to combating the crisis.”

In an email interview with veteran journalist Ann Cooper — a former executive director of the CPJ and a fellow this spring at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy — Simon detailed some of the restrictions and noted that western political leaders have failed to speak out against them. He also discussed some of the measures journalists can take to protect themselves while reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, both in terms of physical and cyber security.

Some key takeaways from the conversation:

  • Wash your hands. Journalists and non-journalists have heard this dozens of times, but “This is the single most important thing that journalists covering COVID-19 can do to protect themselves,” Simon says. (The CPJ’s coronavirus safety advisory is updated frequently and offers dozens of recommendations specific to reporting.)
  • Several national governments have taken legal action against journalists for their COVID-19 coverage.
  • The CPJ has yet to discover a single example of a national government pushing back against other governments that have punished journalists for their COVID-19 coverage.
  • The wave of global repression amounts to a “COVID Crackdown,” says Simon. “My greatest fear is that it will become a permanent feature of the global reality that will stay with us long after the painful memory of this pandemic has faded.”

Cooper’s interview with Simon, below, has been lightly edited for clarity.

It’s sobering to see how many governments have taken action against journalists for their COVID-19 coverage. Your Columbia Journalism Review column cites examples in Venezuela, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa, Azerbaijan, Hungary and Honduras. And that list is growing. What message — or messages — are these governments trying to silence?

Simon: “Anyone in the United States who watched President Trump’s response to the spread of COVID-19 will be familiar with the dynamic playing out in many other parts of the world; political leaders are being told by experts that they must take dramatic action to stem the spread of a deadly disease but they are worried about the economic and social consequences of doing so. Of course one way to avoid making a difficult decision is suppress any reporting that suggests that COVID-19 is spreading rapidly, and many governments are doing just that. Not just China, but Russia, Iran, Egypt (which expelled Ruth Michaelson of The Guardian), Iraq (which pulled the license for Reuters), and many others. Governments are also sensitive to criticism of their response to the pandemic. Of course this is precisely why independent journalism is so important.

To this, I would add two other categories of response, one craven, and the other complex. In the craven category are governments that are using COVID-19 as an opportunity for a raw power grab. This would include Hungary, whose Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, pushed through a Parliamentary motion that will essentially allow him to rule by decree, and Azerbaijan, where the country’s longtime leader Ilham Aliyev declared that fighting the coronavirus may require him to clamp down on the opposition.

For more complex responses look to South Africa and India. Both are democratic countries, with robust and vital media, where concerns about the spread of misinformation are real. But leaders in both countries have implemented sweeping and dangerous measures that are incompatible with democratic principles. In the case of India, Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi has demanded that journalists publish only official information, and has sought to codify this demand into law (India’s Supreme Court has pushed back somewhat).”

This wave of  repression feels reminiscent of what happened in the wake of 9/11, when there were knee-jerk actions against journalists (for example, the New York Stock Exchange briefly barred Al Jazeera reporters from the trading floor) as well as long-term repercussions — in particular, the use of anti-terrorism or national security laws to crack down on media. Where are those laws still being used, and what’s been the impact on reporting?

Simon: “Governments that seek to manage and control information are opportunistic — they take advantage of the prevailing rhetorical and ideological frameworks to justify sweeping crackdowns on dissent. This was certainly the case with the war on terror.

One reason is that governments around the world — sometimes far from the front lines in the war on terror (Zimbabwe comes to mind) — enthusiastically embraced the U.S.’s rhetorical framework. Journalists were branded terrorists, told they were either ‘with us or against us,’ and in at least one instance branded ‘unlawful combatants.’ Among the worst abusers of anti-terror laws in the last decade are Turkey and Egypt, which not coincidentally are among the world’s worst jailers of journalists. At the end of 2019 there were 250 journalists jailed worldwide, close to the record levels we’ve recorded over the last few years. The majority are imprisoned on anti-state charges, including anti-terror laws. So the consequence of the war-on-terror framing on press freedom has been long-lasting and profound.”

Was there pushback from Western governments against countries that jailed journalists on anti-terrorism charges?

Simon: “I would not say there was necessarily pushback regarding the framing, because every country was fighting terror, which is precisely why so many authoritarian governments embraced the rhetoric. It allowed these leaders to say to Western governments, ‘we are fighting terrorism, just like you told us to do. What right do you have to criticize our methods?’

That said, there was certainly pushback around individual cases — in Turkey, Egypt, and Ethiopia, for example, where the Obama administration intervened directly to secure the release of journalists imprisoned in advance of the 2015 presidential summit.”

Is there any pushback from Western governments now against those governments that have targeted journalists for COVID-19 coverage?

Simon: “So I polled the CPJ staff on this. No one could come up with a single example.”

Are there other examples of global or regional emergencies that governments have used as justification for cracking down on press freedoms?

Simon: “Aside from the war on terror, I would point to the response to the Color Revolutions and the Arab Spring. While many people around the world were inspired by the role that information technologies and street protests played in sparking political revolution, authoritarian leaders came away with a different lesson: controlling information is essential to retaining power. We saw an increase in repression that spanned the globe from Iran, to China, to Russia. Many governments took action to exert more control over online speech, and subvert the power of social media, and we also saw a rise in journalists in prison.

And while I would not call this an emergency, I would note that we’ve also seen governments around the world embrace President Trump’s ‘fake news’ rhetoric in a variety of ways — seeking to discredit and undermine the work of the press, passing restrictive new laws, and in the worst cases putting journalists in jail. Between 2015 and today we’ve seen a threefold increase in the number of the journalists jailed around the world [on charges of] reporting false news — from 10 to 30 — as the total number of [imprisoned] journalists has held steady above 250, the highest numbers ever recorded by CPJ.”

Your CJR column noted the difficulty of focusing on long-term consequences in the midst of the pandemic, but you warned that one consequence could be that we end up accepting new limits on liberties such as press freedom. That would mean accepting an argument – now made by China – that information control was essential to combating the crisis. Where else do you see that narrative being written now, and how do journalists refute it?

Simon: “I think that narrative is largely implied, and it’s largely being promulgated by China, through its state media and global propaganda networks. China is arguing that its authoritarian structures — which of course include controls on information and the press — are more effective at managing a public health crisis, and they are pointing to their success in stopping the spread of the coronavirus in China even as it ravages so much of the world. I should note that precisely because there is not free and independent reporting in China, we can’t be confident that the government has truly achieved the success it claims.

I don’t really think it’s the job of journalists to push back against this narrative, although of course journalists should be reporting rigorously on the Chinese government claims. It’s really up to the leaders of the world’s leading democracies to make the case that a free and independent media is a key asset in fighting the pandemic because it’s the best system we have for imparting timely, accurate information and because journalists play a key role not just in informing the public but in holding leaders accountable. That is why it is so acutely dangerous for President Trump to continue bashing the media and lashing out at critical outlets and reporters. … I’ve started to call the wave of global repression we are experiencing right now the COVID Crackdown. My greatest fear is that it will become a permanent feature of the global reality that will stay with us long after the painful memory of this pandemic has faded.”

CPJ published a detailed coronavirus safety advisory that’s now translated into 23 languages (all available online). It goes well beyond the basic hand washing and social distancing advice we all get every day from multiple sources. Much of it is tailored for journalists: for example, broadcast journalists should start using fishpole (also called shotgun) microphones instead of clip-on mics; and all of us should be wary of clicking links or downloading documents we receive about COVID-19. Of the many points of advice, tell us which CPJ considers most vital for all journalists to know, wherever they are covering this crisis.

“Actually, we’ve now translated into 40 languages and the number continues to grow. You’re right that we’ve provided information that is specially tailored to journalists, but if you are asking the most vital piece of advice for reporters it’s actually the same as it is for everyone else: Wash your hands. This is the single most important thing that journalists covering COVID-19 can do to protect themselves. Of course, depending on the assignment, journalists need to consider specialized needs, including proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE), effective social distancing, and, as you suggest, protecting yourself from malware and other online ruses. As scientists and researchers collect more data on COVID-19 and its spread, their understanding changes, and the safety advice will change as well. Journalists should be constantly checking for updates from the local health authorities, and from global and regional authorities like the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the WHO [World Health Organization]. CPJ’s experts are looking at all this information daily and regularly updating our tips to ensure all journalists have access to the best advice available.”

Ann Cooper is a Spring 2020 Joan Shorenstein Fellow who has more than 25 years of radio and print reporting experience. She worked as NPR’s first Moscow bureau chief from 1987 to 1992, and as bureau chief in Johannesburg from 1992 to 1995. She also worked as executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists from 1998 to 2006, prior to joining the Columbia Journalism School faculty, from which she retired in 2019 as CBS Professor Emerita of Professional Practice. While at the Shorenstein Center, Cooper is writing a paper titled, “Russian Media and the Legacy of Glasnost.”

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