The COVID-19 pandemic is a threat to news media in the United States and around the world because of the financial impact from the loss of advertising. But you already knew that, didn’t you? Did you know though that it is also a threat to press freedom? Various journalism groups say politicians and government officials are using COVID-19 concerns as an excuse to restrict, and in some cases, attack the press.
That is why this year’s observance of World Press Freedom Day on May 3rd is so critical. The problem is not just associated with the usual offenders, like China and Russia. The countries in which press freedoms are under attack range from Algeria to Azerbaijan, from Burundi to Bahrain, from Scotland to Sierra Leone and, of course, the United States.
Worldwide, there have been hundreds of cases, ranging from physical attacks, to arrests, to “journalists not being allowed to report,” according to the Foundation for International Investigations of Crimes Against Media’s global press freedom tracker. The group’s Justice for Journalists site says in the vast majority of recent cases, the coronavirus pandemic is used to justify those attacks.
And their model: Donald J. Trump. His phrase “fake news” has been adopted by Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s strongman prime minister, Viktor Orban, and the president of Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev, among others. Add to that India, Turkey and Egypt, all using the coronavirus as justification to suppress the media.
“Hostility toward journalists and news outlets in the United States deepened and intensified, and few attacks were as vitriolic as those that came from the president.” –RSF.org
In America there have been 28 incidents so far this year in which press freedoms were attacked, ranging from actual physical attacks to legal attacks to what the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, calls “chilling statements.” Last year there were 89 incidents.
The United States ranks 45th out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom, according to the annual report on press freedom around the world by Reporters Without Borders. In that report RSF says the United States needs to “restore its role as champion of the free press at home and abroad in order for it to be considered a leading democracy.”
The top ten countries start with Norway at the top followed by Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Netherlands Jamaica, Costa Rica, Switzerland, New Zealand and Portugal. The worst countries for press freedom are Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Laos, Iran, Syria, Vietnam, Djibouti, China, Eritrea, Turkmenistan and last and definitely least – North Korea.
Somewhat surprisingly the United States is up three spots in 2019 compared to the previous year. That puts it between what the RSF calls a “satisfactory solution” and a “problematic solution.” Keep in mind that this report is for 2019, and this year President Trump has increased his attacks many times over.
Knowing Keeps Us Free
That’s a line from a 60-second spot produced by The Washington Post and voiced by actor Tom Hanks, first aired during the 2019 Super Bowl. It’s been re-released as part of the World Press Freedom Day campaign spearheaded by The Washington Post. Take one minute and watch the video. It’s quite inspirational.
Now take a second look at the YouTube link. The video has more than 1.5 million views, but more interestingly, look at the thumbs up and thumbs down symbols. There are 13,000 likes but 10,000 dislikes. That tells you a lot about the polarized atmosphere facing journalists in America today.
The Washington Post’s campaign is just one of several recent efforts to promote and protect press freedom. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press-led #ProtectPressFreedom campaign highlighted the importance of journalism throughout history. The National Association of Hispanic Journalists spearheaded a #PRESSential campaign to thank journalists, who are also essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
RTDNA participated in both these efforts through its own Voice of the First Amendment Task Force, which takes an on-the-ground advocacy approach to pushing for press freedom continually across the US.
Journalism is worth defending, on World Press Freedom Day, not just in the United States but around the world. And not just for one day but all week, all month and all year.
“Regardless of where in the world you want to exercise the right to freedom of the press, you have to keep fighting for it.” –RSF.org
COVID-19 is spawning a global press-freedom crackdown
Healing words: How press freedom is being threatened by the coronavirus pandemic
How the coronavirus could trigger a backslide on freedom around the world
Coronavirus threatens health of U.S. Journalism