By Rikar Hussein | VOA Extremism Watch Desk
During a global crisis like COVID-19, the media play an important role in helping ensure people have access to independent news.
This project was produced by VOA’s Extremism Watch and Press Freedom desks. It includes a snapshot of restrictions and challenges for media covering COVID-19 worldwide and personal views of journalists who spoke with VOA.
But from western democracies to authoritarian governments in Asia and Latin America, authorities have increasingly used the pandemic to stifle press freedom.
In China and Iran, authorities moved to tightly censor media during the outbreak. The countries rank 177th and 173rd respectively out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2020 World Press Freedom Index, in which countries with the worst conditions receive a higher score.
Countries including the United States, South Africa and India have tried to restrict access to briefings or demand that journalists speak with only government-approved health experts. Reporters in Ukraine, Zimbabwe and elsewhere have been physically attacked while trying to report on lockdown measures.
VOA is documenting cases in an interactive map in which journalists report being attacked, arrested or restricted.
In regions that were already repressive or experiencing unrest, the risk of violence and arrest is higher.
“Authoritarian regimes have broadly used the coronavirus pandemic to tighten control over the media and to increase state censorship,” Dokhi Fassihian, the U.S. executive director of the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), told VOA.
“There has been no shortage of pretexts: avoiding panic, combating fake news and disinformation, persuading the public to comply with health directives, and of course, reassuring everyone by projecting the image of a functional and effective government,” Fassihian said.
Robert Mahoney, deputy executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, said independent media can act as the first line of defense against the pandemic by providing steady and reliable information about the virus and government responses.
“Those leaders try to peddle the narrative that they are in control. So, a journalist going to a hospital which is overwhelmed, going to a testing site which isn’t up and running, and reporting on the terrible economic conditions that people are suffering is a threat to those in administration,” said Mahoney.
“We need to salute those journalists and bloggers that are trying to hold power to account because people’s lives depend on it,” he said.
Journalists working overseas told VOA about their challenges covering COVID-19, either in places experiencing unrest and hardship, or where the media are restricted or censored.
Issues included restrictions, obstacles to accessing information, and arrests and accusations of false news for reporting on the pandemic or criticizing authorities. Other barriers included internet restrictions and reporting in the field when personal protective equipment is in short supply.
Several said restrictions imposed during the lockdown have cut communities off from access to information at a vital time. Others highlighted how their reporting helped bring change by reporting on hospital workers not receiving pay or children being exposed to risk.