Defend­ing Press Free­dom in the Time of Coronavirus

The coro­n­avirus cri­sis has pro­vid­ed a wel­come pre­text for soft author­i­tar­i­an regimes the world over to strength­en their hold on pow­er, with their declared states of excep­tion poten­tial­ly becom­ing the new nor­mal. Curb­ing press free­dom was among illib­er­al rule’s casu­al­ties even pri­or to the pan­dem­ic; attacks against inde­pen­dent news­pa­pers and TV chan­nels have not been lim­it­ed to the Trump Pres­i­den­cy, which is noto­ri­ous for its charge of “fake news” against crit­i­cal reporters. But neu­tral­i­ty of the press can be a risky prin­ci­ple in the face of “alter­na­tive facts” such as Trump’s recent home reme­dies for the coronavirus.

The USA was ranked 45th out of 180 coun­tries for its hos­til­i­ty towards news media in Reporters with­out Bor­ders’ recent­ly pub­lished World Press Free­dom Index, with Chi­na (ranked 117th), Iraq and Iran among the coun­tries men­tioned for cen­sor­ing cov­er­age of the COVID-19 out­break. Instead of sup­press­ing the spread of COVID-19, plac­ing lim­its on press free­dom could back­fire, not only by reduc­ing pub­lic aware­ness about the grave risks of the virus, but also pre­vent­ing pub­lic debate about steps need­ed to mit­i­gate the risks. More­over, this gag on press free­dom com­pounds an unprece­dent­ed lock­down in which par­lia­ments – even in lib­er­al democ­ra­cies – are hard­ly func­tion­ing, courts are not in reg­u­lar ses­sion, street protests are impos­si­ble due to restric­tions on the right to assem­bly, elec­tions have been can­celled (for the most part), and uni­ver­si­ties are closed.

Under these cir­cum­stances, a free press is the only insti­tu­tion of coun­ter­vail­ing pow­er that could hold a gov­ern­ment to account. A wide­spread anti-press sen­ti­ment along with the deten­tion, intim­i­da­tion and jail­ing of activists and jour­nal­ists, has become the order of the day in Turkey and India, to name but a few of the coun­tries wit­ness­ing sys­tem­at­ic assaults on press free­dom in recent years, assaults that have esca­lat­ed under the con­di­tions cre­at­ed by the cur­tail­ment of civ­il lib­er­ties due to the threat of coronavirus.

Hun­gary sus­pend­ed its par­lia­ment and fur­ther curbed free­dom of expres­sion, giv­ing Prime Min­is­ter Orban unfet­tered emer­gency pow­ers to rule by decree. Chi­na expelled Amer­i­can jour­nal­ists for report­ing on the dan­gers of the virus, while Iraq tem­porar­i­ly with­drew Reuter’s license after it pub­lished a sto­ry on the government’s under­re­port­ing of COVID-19 cas­es. On 10 April 2020, The New York Times report­ed that 28,000 work­ers at news com­pa­nies in the USA had lost their jobs since the start of the pan­dem­ic. It is unlike­ly that the news indus­try will receive the fed­er­al aid that it is plead­ing for to pre­vent fur­ther job loss­es and closures.

Lib­er­al democ­ra­cies need strong civ­il soci­ety organ­i­sa­tions that can mobilise pub­lic opin­ion and fos­ter pub­lic debate, mon­i­tor the func­tion­ing of insti­tu­tions, and hold politi­cians and pub­lic offi­cials responsible.

What Buz­zfeed has called “media extinc­tion” comes in the wake of decades of lay­offs and the shut­ting down of small local and region­al news­pa­pers, but also of large, pro­gres­sive news sites, such as ThinkProgress in 2019. Fox News, how­ev­er, con­tin­ues to gath­er strength, post­ing record rat­ings in the first quar­ter of this year. The com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion of the pub­lic sphere, along with the enor­mous con­cen­tra­tion of pow­er in the hands of very few media com­pa­nies, which are close­ly linked to politi­cians in many a lib­er­al democ­ra­cy, spells dan­ger for press free­dom, as does repres­sion by author­i­tar­i­an gov­ern­ments. Both trends result in a near monop­oly over information.

The WHO’s Direc­tor-Gen­er­al alert­ed us recent­ly that the pan­dem­ic is also an “info­dem­ic”, one that has giv­en a fil­lip to spu­ri­ous con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries cir­cu­lat­ing wide­ly in var­i­ous social media: “fake news” spread not only by ill-informed pri­vate indi­vid­u­als or ill-inten­tioned groups but also by gov­ern­ments. But it has drawn atten­tion once again to the dan­gers of “dead” or “buried” news sup­pressed by those in author­i­ty along with the deploy­ment of all kinds of strate­gies to con­trol infor­ma­tion and mute pub­lic debate.

The rhetoric of the pan­dem­ic as “war” against an invis­i­ble ene­my employed in France, as much as in Chi­na and the US, serves the same func­tion. Lib­er­al democ­ra­cies need strong civ­il soci­ety organ­i­sa­tions that can mobilise pub­lic opin­ion and fos­ter pub­lic debate, mon­i­tor the func­tion­ing of insti­tu­tions, and hold politi­cians and pub­lic offi­cials respon­si­ble. In the absence of the free­dom of the press, nei­ther protest nor dis­sent can be voiced. The COVID-19 cri­sis may have accel­er­at­ed the speed of the move­ment towards the slip­pery slope of dis­man­tling democ­ra­cy and human rights in many parts of the world.

This commentary has been written for IWM’s blog Coronavirus: How Will It Affect Our Lives?, and the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy’s series of commentaries on the effects of the novel coronavirus on democratic experiences around the globe.


Shalini Randeria

Shalini Randeria is Rector and President of the Central European University (Vienna/Budapest). Before, she was Professor of Social Anthropology and Sociology at the Graduate Institute Geneva, and Rector of the Institute of Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna from 2014 to 2021. She has published widely on the anthropology of globalisation, law, the state and social movements. Her empirical research on India also addresses issues of post-coloniality and multiple modernities.