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.”