Journalism has always been a risky business. Today the global COVID-19 pandemic has given many governments an excuse to increase their crackdown on journalists who counter government narratives regarding the virus and the handling of the pandemic.
Across the world, at least 14 journalists have been arrested in 2020 for “unfair and imprecise coverage” of the pandemic.
Courtney Radsch is the advocacy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists
Courtney told U.S. News:
“COVID is a very convenient excuse to target journalists that regimes did not like before.”
Info Wars 2020
According to two media rights groups – the CPJ and Reporters Without Borders – China tops the list of countries where suppression of journalism is taking place.
Worldwide, 387 journalists were detained during 2020. Of those, 54 are still being held hostage and four are ‘missing in action’.
More than half – 61% – are being held in China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Syria.
Attacks on female journalists has seen a particularly strong increase in arrests, with 35% more women being imprisoned in 2020 compared to 2019.
There’s also been a 400% increase in “arbitrary arrests” of journalists in 2020, the vast majority of which appear to have been related to their coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Reporters Without Borders:
“While most arrested journalists were held for just a few hours or, in some cases, a few days or weeks, 14 journalists who were arrested in connection with their coverage of the pandemic are still being held at the end of the year.”
2020 – Murders of Journalists Doubled
CPJ also reports that murders of journalists has more than doubled in 2020, compared to 2019. The murders are often labeled as “retaliatory killings” committed by gangs and/or militants in “violent but democratic nations”
However, the truth behind these government produced stats are that the murdered journalists were mostly covering political issues.
Uladzislau Belavusau of the Asser Institute’s Centre for International and European Law, said:
“Corona laws are often being used as a façade for the decline of democratic institutions.”
In all, 30 journalists were killed, worldwide, in 2020 in relation to their work. Of those, 21 were murdered, a significant jump from the 10 murdered in 2019. An additional 15 deaths are also still under investigation by the CPJ to ascertain whether journalism was the motive, so the end tally could be higher still.
The countries with the highest numbers of retaliatory murders in 2020 were Mexico, Afghanistan and the Philippines. Adding insult to injury, in the vast majority of these murders, the killers go free.
China Sentences Citizen Journalist to Four Years in Prison
As mentioned, China detained the greatest number of journalists in 2020. As of December 1, 2020, 117 Chinese journalists had been placed behind bars.
One of them is Zhang Zhan, a former Shanghai lawyer who was detained May 15, 2020.
Zhang had been posting daily video reports about the Wuhan outbreak on YouTube and Twitter since early February. While these social media platforms are blocked in mainland China, Zhang had been using a virtual private network (VPN) to access the platforms.
According to Vice.com –
“Her videos stood in stark contrast to state media’s reports on the outbreak, which initially glossed over the severity of the virus and sought to highlight the heroic efforts of medical workers in treating patients.”
December 28, 2020, the Shanghai Pudong People’s Court sentenced Zhang to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.”
This vaguely-defined charge is one which the Chinese government often uses as a way to silence their critics.
Zhang reportedly went on a hunger strike in June and has been force-fed through a nasal tube since then.
One of Zhang’s defence attorneys said that she had begun the hunger strike because:
“She couldn’t accept the fact that she was punished for exercising her freedom of speech, a right laid out in the Chinese constitution. She views compliance as an insult to herself.”
Chinese Citizen Journalists Still Missing
In addition to Zhang, at least three other citizen journalists who had been covering the pandemic in Wuhan — Chen Quishi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua — have also been detained or are missing. Chen, who disappeared in February 2020, is now believed to be in the custody of Chinese authorities, although his precise location is still unclear.
A similar fate appears to have befallen Li, who in his last YouTube video, (posted in April) said he had been detained by police but not charged. No additional videos have been posted to his account since. We still don’t know if he’s been released or remains in custody.
The whereabouts of Fang is still unknown.
Many Countries Weaponised the News in 2020
According to a June 5, 2020, article in Courthouse News, at least 16 countries have passed laws “targeting misinformation about the coronavirus.”
According to Uladzislau Belavusau, senior researcher at the Asser Institute’s Centre for International and European Law,
“Corona laws are often being used as a façade for the decline of democratic institutions …”
Countries that now have laws on the books that restrict reporting of news about COVID-19 and call for fines and/or the arrest of journalists accused of spreading misinformation about the virus are shown in the graphic above.
IPI, which has been monitoring press freedom restrictions during the pandemic, also released the following image, showing the number of press freedom violations recorded across the world.
According to Barbara Trionfi, executive director of the IPI, “In all cases, the laws have been used to limit critical, legitimate reporting” about the pandemic.
Marko Milanovic, professor of public international law at the University of Nottingham School of Law, agreed, telling Courthouse News the approach “is not effective,” as the laws are “broadly used to limit criticism of the government rather than stop bad actors from spreading misinformation.”
Courthouse News added:
“Yordanka Ivanova, a researcher in international law at Sofia University in Bulgaria, argues that privacy regulations could curtail the spread of fake news.
Limiting the amount of targeting social media companies could do, she said, could keep information from spreading widely and minimizes so-called filter bubbles, where people only see news information that aligns with their existing beliefs.”
China’s Extensive COVID Cover-Up
Alina Chan, a molecular biologist at the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, has been outspoken about China’s apparent efforts to hide information about the source of SARS-CoV-2.
In a December 28, 2020, Twitter post, Chan listed a number of suspicious approaches taken by Chinese authorities since the initial outbreak in Wuhan:
“Imprisoning journalists looking into what happened in Wuhan, obstructing inquiries into mysterious pneumonia cases in Yunnan miners in 2012, failure to describe what should have been a stunning discovery of a novel FCS [furin cleavage site] in a SARS virus, removal of an extensive pathogen database …”
Nature, one of the most prestigious medical journals in China, allowing authors to secretly alter SARS-CoV-2 data sets in their papers without publishing notices of correction.
Chan was the one who discovered that scientists had renamed samples, failed to attribute them properly, and produced a genomic profile that didn’t match the samples in their paper.
According to Chan, the database on bat and mouse viral pathogens, which had been managed by Shi Zhengli from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, has also been taken offline, further restricting scientists and researchers’ ability to analyze the potential origins of SARS-CoV-2.
We’re in an Information War
All in all, China does appear intent on maintaining tight control over the pandemic narrative. Clearly, the Chinese government does not want to release anything that might implicate it in the release of a lab-created virus, whether accidental or intentional.
But China is far from alone in this quest. Many countries around the world are clearly hell-bent on controlling the narrative as well and are increasing attacks on journalists who dig deeper and question the logic of it all.
According to recent media reports, intelligence agencies in both the U.K. and U.S. are now working to eliminate “anti-vaccine propaganda” from public discussion using sophisticated cyberwarfare tools.
That we are in an information war could not be any clearer. And, in a war where information is the key weapon, journalists are akin to soldiers. There will be casualties.
Yet we cannot and we must not stop.
The freedom of every person in the world is at stake.