COVID-19 brings new threat to journalists: jail

Why We Wrote This

COVID-19 has raised many questions about the nature of freedom. But few people are having to face them as brutally as the journalists around the world who have been locked up for reporting on the pandemic.

Matias Delacroix/AP
Journalists wearing protective gloves, hats, and masks attend a press conference by Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab in Caracas on May 4, 2020.

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Around the world, COVID-19 is giving age-old philosophical questions real-life relevance. The latest example? The nature of freedom in an age of pandemic.

Some people are worried about their privacy if tracking apps to locate carriers become widespread. Others, especially in the United States, dispute the government’s right to enforce safety rules.

But worldwide, it is journalists who are suffering the bluntest attacks on their freedom, especially when they live in fragile democracies or under autocratic regimes.

From Turkey to China, from Egypt to Venezuela, from Ethiopia to Russia, governments have locked up journalists for reporting on COVID-19 in ways that displeased them.

Ethiopian reporter Yayesew Shimelis was locked up for reporting that the authorities were preparing tens of thousands of gravesites for pandemic victims. In Turkey, Fox News anchor Fatih Portakal was jailed for suggesting tax hikes might have been needed to fund the government’s response.

It remains to be seen whether such governments ease up when the pandemic has passed. But they face one question in common with the United States: Will the political battles waged under the pressure of the pandemic lead to lasting changes?

You may not have heard of Fatih Portakal or Chen Mei, Anna Shushpanova or Ruth Michaelson, Darvison Rojas or Yayesew Shimelis.

But they’re living examples of how the COVID-19 pandemic is transforming age-old philosophical questions into real-life issues around the world. The latest: the nature of freedom in the age of the coronavirus.

Different nations are confronting this in different ways. Even some democracies, like the United States, are still grappling for an answer – a debate all the more important because it could color political life for long after the pandemic is over.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

But for Fatih Portakal and others, from Asia and Africa to Europe and Latin America, the outcome seems already clear, and the picture much starker.

They are journalists, working for established newspapers or broadcasters, or as citizen reporters on social media. They live and work under fragile democracies or autocratic regimes where basic freedoms – of expression, information, conscience – and the rule of law were already tenuous. And from the outset of the pandemic, it has become clear that constraints on all these fronts were tightening.

In nondemocratic states, no less than in democratic ones, the existence of a public health emergency made some limitations – on public gatherings, for instance – nearly inevitable. Even in democracies, some explicitly coronavirus-related balances are having to be struck, as my Monitor colleague, Eoin O’Carroll, explored a few days ago in his look at the role of smartphone surveillance.

Yet the main battleground for Mr. Portakal and other journalists hasn’t been about such trade-offs. It has involved efforts simply to provide reliable information about the virus, and about failures or oversights in their governments’ actions to limit its spread.

Mr. Portakal works in Turkey, which, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, already has more journalists in jail than any place but China. Mr. Erdoğan made his answer to the “rights versus emergency” question clear in March. The government announced its intention to release a large number of prisoners for health reasons; it excluded all jailed journalists. Last month, police arrested Mr. Portakal – news anchor for Fox TV in Turkey – after he suggested tax hikes might be imposed to help fund the response to COVID-19.

Journalists have also been facing sanctions or restraints on reporting in dozens of countries. Those range from Ethiopia, where Yayesew Shimelis was arrested after reporting that the authorities were preparing tens of thousands of gravesites in anticipation of deaths from the virus, to Venezuela, where Darvison Rojas is one of nearly a dozen journalists detained while reporting on the outbreak.

In Egypt, as in Turkey, even before the pandemic, hundreds of journalists and political prisoners were behind bars. And President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi signaled his intentions even earlier than Mr. Erdoğan. In mid-March, the Egyptian authorities forced Ruth Michaelson, a correspondent for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, to leave after she reported on a research study suggesting they were understating the number of cases.

Of particular concern for rights activists, Egypt’s parliament has now approved emergency legislation giving President Sisi widened powers to detain suspects indefinitely. Last week, a “terrorism court” extended pretrial detention for more than 1,600 inmates, including many arrested on political grounds, according to Amnesty International.

In Europe, the emergency has given Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his self-described “illiberal democracy” an open-ended authority to rule by decree. He had already been reining in the judiciary and the news media.

China and Russia have also shown they’re determined to punish journalists for coverage of their response to the pandemic. In China, Chen Mei is one of five citizen journalists detained after disseminating information about the spread of the disease. Two of them had produced independent reports on the initial outbreak in Wuhan.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin last month signed a law allowing fines or jail terms for people publishing what the authorities deem to be false information on the pandemic. A few days later, police searched the apartment of Anna Shushpanova, a political activist in St. Petersburg, confiscating her phone and computer. She’d posted a report on residents’ concerns in Sestroretsk, a few miles to the northwest, over what they saw as inadequate quarantine precautions at a local hospital.

There is no danger in democracies like the United States of a crackdown on freedom of expression prompted by COVID-19. But even in the U.S. the pandemic and the controversy surrounding the federal government’s response have caused strains.

President Donald Trump has ramped up his attacks on critical media coverage, assailing it as “fake news” produced by by “terrible” journalists.

A particular tension between the health emergency and personal freedoms has also been intensifying. Mr. Trump’s supporters have taken the lead in protesting against state governors’ shutdowns as an assault on their individual prerogative to live, work, and interact with others as they choose.

For now, that philosophical debate is being overshadowed by a partisan battle over the Trump administration’s response and the national elections in November. But one thing the U.S. does share with less democratic states is a longer-term question: whether political battles waged under the pressure of the COVID-19 emergency will lead to lasting political changes in a post-pandemic world.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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