Government crackdowns on journalists are unsurprising in places like China. What’s chilling lately is how many other governments — including some in countries with free-press traditions — are now using the global pandemic as an excuse to muzzle the media, stifling clear-eyed coverage of the crisis when and where it’s needed most.
As the world’s leading democracy, America should be a living example of the urgency of a free press. Instead, America’s president provides a template for authoritarians everywhere with his irresponsible labeling of any critical reporting as “fake news.” Make no mistake: Here and abroad, undermining vibrant media coverage during this emergency makes the pandemic more, not less, dangerous.
It’s not overstatement to say that, had China had such a free press in place when this pandemic started, the rest of the world would have been better prepared to fight the virus. Trump and others have correctly pointed out that China lied about the extent of the epidemic at the start — this is what totalitarian governments do — but that cover-up wouldn’t have been possible under the eye of unfettered journalism.
While the coronavirus vexed China’s autocrats, it was a gift to others, who have used the emergency to expand their power. It’s a goal that invariably requires, first and foremost, leashing the press. Both Egypt and Iraq have revoked press credentials of foreign journalists for questioning official government death tolls. In Turkey, the government has detained and interrogated reporters for coverage alleged to create a danger of incitement, even though the reporting was accurate. India’s government has attempted to force all media to publish only official accounts of the pandemic (courts have, so far, prevented it). The government of Honduras has gone further, suspending the clause of its constitution that prohibits censorship.
South Africa, Hungary and other countries have passed laws to allow jailing journalists for dissemination of “false” news on the pandemic — its falsity, of course, being determined by the government. As Americans know too well these days, national leaders who cry “fake news” are likely to define that as any news they don’t like, no matter how accurate.
That’s long been President Donald Trump’s playbook, and although he has yet to obtain the authority to silence critical journalists as he would clearly like, it’s had an impact elsewhere. “We’ve ... seen governments around the world embrace President Trump’s ‘fake news’ rhetoric in a variety of ways,” says Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, “seeking to discredit and undermine the work of the press, passing restrictive new laws, and in the worst cases putting journalists in jail.”
The organization has identified more than 200 cases globally of journalists’ arrests or harassment related to pandemic coverage. Trump can’t go that far — yet. But his constant, false claims of “fake news” have aided and abetted the tyrants.