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25 March 2020updated 09 Apr 2020 7:41am

The regimes using coronavirus as an excuse to attack press freedom

Disease specialists have been banned by the South African government from speaking to the media about Covid-19, amid abuses across the world.

By Rachael Jolley

In times of extraordinary crisis, governments often take the opportunity to roll back media freedom. The public’s right to know can be severely reduced as laws are changed without normal democratic oversight.

There is already a growing list of attacks and violations against the media in the current coronavirus crisis, amid other alarming news pertaining to privacy and freedoms.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro is suspending the Freedom of Information Act, and in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is introducing emergency legislation that gives him power to prevent elections being held this year.

Orbán’s bill also outlines powers that could be used against those who publicise “false or distorted facts” that alarm or agitate the public, with punishment of up to five years in prison.

Meanwhile, the South African government has stopped epidemiologists, virologists, infectious disease specialists and other experts from commenting in the media on Covid-19 and insists that all requests for comment be directed to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

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At times such as this, emergency legislation can pass through parliaments swiftly, as can be necessary, to make sure that important action can be taken. But it can also – at the click of a computer key – remove hard-fought rights, including media freedom, which the public has spent centuries winning.

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Media freedom is at the heart of helping tackle a fast-moving crisis. Remember when news organisations began to report on public health scares and then deaths in China in January? The rest of the world slowly started to hear what was happening. It would have heard sooner if the Chinese government’s grip on the media and public information had not been as tight and stifling as it was. That censorship stopped the world acting faster.

Strong media freedom is essential during this time. Governments must be held to account as reports emerge of doctors lacking proper masks in hospitals and inadequate supplies of vital equipment.

News stations are also vital in finding out where people are needed to volunteer, and in telling the heart-warming stories of neighbours pitching in to help out someone nearby who cannot leave their home. We need to hear those too.

Just over a week ago, Index on Censorship, in conjunction with the Justice for Journalists Foundation, started collating data from across the world about where media freedom was being restricted or swept away by new laws.

We launched a map of these incidents, and increasing numbers of journalists from as far afield as South Africa and Venezuela have been in touch to report to the map, worried that media freedom is being dramatically squeezed.

Many of these incidents have long-term consequences if the legislation or rules being used are not reversed at the end of the emergency, and there is no guarantee that this will happen. We will be dependent on the goodwill and the commitment of those in power to do so.

Sunset clauses – where emergency legislation automatically runs out after a certain period – would be the ideal democratic tool for these new laws, but very few have them. The Conservative MP David Davis did call for a sunset clause in the UK’s emergency legislation, but it was not included. A review every six months is a safeguard but not a guarantee.

The public is understandably worried about incorrect or misleading information about coronavirus being distributed, but “fake news” laws are often used to close down news or reporting that governments don’t like. So we should be wary of that.

We should also be extremely worried that some national leaders are choosing to misinform the public deliberately. For example, earlier this week Bolsonaro said that the press and his political rivals were tricking the country about the dangers of coronavirus. In February, US President Donald Trump referred to coronavirus as “a hoax” being spread by his opponents.

Challenges are coming at us from all directions. But the public’s right to know should not be erased during this time. “It is easy to part with or give away great privileges, but hard to be gained if once lost,” said Quaker William Penn, who went on to establish the state of Pennsylvania in the US.

Far more recently, another wise man – the former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Igor Judge – said that we should be careful never to assume that liberties, rights and justice can be taken for granted. They must not be.

Rachael Jolley is editor-in-chief of Index on Censorship, the global freedom of expression organisation and publisher