Journalistic freedom has had a rough year. Amidst a year of pandemic related restrictions and political tensions that pre-exist the virus, democracy has suffered. It has suffered so much that, according to Freedom House, the state of democracy and human rights has weakened in 80 countries across the world. The World Press Freedom Index published at the start of this month says the same; 73 percent of the countries included in their analysis were found to have either an impeded or a completely blocked press. Freedom of movement, and therefore access to news sources has been restricted in a number of countries on the grounds of pandemic rules. Not all of the press restriction comes from governments though; the abundance of misinformation and “fake news” presented in 2020 comes alongside a widespread public distrust in the press with 59% of people globally who feel that the news is deliberately misleading.
Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway have kept their high rank, with Norway coming in first place. It has, for a long time, been a high scorer in all measurements of freedom and democracy, but was not immune to the challenges presented by the pandemic. Restrictions on freedom of movement in hospitals were criticized, as was access to information.
Germany is also well known for its progressive attitudes regarding the news, but its press freedom score suffered in 2020 not purely because of government repression, but due to violent attacks from far left and far right extremists at demonstrations. This trend was widespread in the context of corona; this, in addition to civil rights protests, provided the backdrop in the United States for a dramatic increase in attacks on journalists (400 attacks in 2020).
“One might argue that the massive spread of the virus in the following months could have been reduced in intensity had the initial reports not been suppressed”
The worst scoring countries in the world remain largely unchanged. This year Eritrea takes its place at the bottom of the list. The country’s dictator Issayas Afeworki said in 2014, “those who think there will be democracy in this country can think so in another world”. The only available independent media source in Eritrea is a radio station transmitting from Paris by exiled journalists, and it often has its signal jammed. Next comes North Korea, where people can be sent to concentration camps for accessing foreign media, and then Turkmenistan. Both of these countries denied having any corona cases and the latter requires that people show ID before entering an internet cafe despite the internet being highly censored while the media is completely under government control.
China holds the 4th to last spot, and brings with it a recent and highly relevant example of the disadvantages to a restricted press. When the coronavirus began spreading, Chinese authorities suppressed news reports about the virus, arresting disseminators, reprimanding doctors and silencing hospital staff who spoke about the virus. In December 2019, a doctor was accused of spreading rumors that “severely disturbed the social order”. One might argue that the massive spread of the virus in the following months could have been reduced in intensity had the initial reports not been suppressed. These specific instances of suppression of press freedom produced a situation with catastrophic consequences across the globe.
“Journalists were refused access to report on the fire at the refugee camp in Moria as well as at other refugee camps throughout Greece.”
In Europe, Belarus is the most dangerous country for media personnel. Large scale arrests, violence, and intimidation alongside internet and print media censorship are commonplace. Police do what they can to discourage journalists from covering the protests that have been taking place since last summer as independent journalists are fined, exiled or arrested. Most recently, activist blogger Roman Protasevich was removed from a Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius after authorities in Minsk demanded that the plane perform an emergency landing. He was accused of organizing mass riots and inciting social hatred; last year, his news organization Nexta spread footage of the protests when media coverage was scarce.
Here in Greece, Prime Minister Mitsotakis has been criticized for attempting to control information about the pandemic and the refugee crisis. Government permission was needed to report in hospitals, and in Lesvos, journalists were refused access to report on the fire at the refugee camp in Moria as well as at other refugee camps throughout Greece. In addition, media outlets were ordered not to report on how Mitsotakis violated pandemic regulations in February. Student protests against an education bill that brings the police into university campuses and threatens academic freedom were also threatened by police citing corona regulations. Besides state intervention, Greece also saw one of its journalists murdered outside his home in a drive by shooting with silenced weapons. Giorgos Karaivaz was a specialist in organized crime reporting and his assassination was described by police as “a professional hit”.
As protests in Colombia continue, the questionability of its government’s attitude towards the press is under the spotlight. Colombia is a very dangerous country to be a journalist, with killings and intimidation being within the norm particularly when reporting on corruption or paramilitaries; there is also disagreement between the government and NGOs regarding the death count of the protests over the past few weeks, and reporters are told they cannot film without explicit permission (which is not true; in Colombia filming is allowed in public).
Something else that is worrying are the multiple claims that Instagram, Facebook and WhatsApp are censoring content such as livestreams and videos of the protests in Colombia. This comes at the same time as similar reports regarding coverage of the current conflict in Israel and Palestine. Hundreds of people have alleged that content with pro-Palestinian hashtags is taken down while posters are temporarily suspended, with anti-Semitism often being cited. This is referred to by the social media organisations as errors in algorithms; they maintain that they allow free speech on their platforms.
“When the truth is hidden away, lies will replace it.”
2020 has shown us just how damaging press restrictions can be in causing public hysteria. The result can cause a butterfly effect that creates a global surge in suicide rates and mental health problems, widespread violence against the state or the press to whom people inevitably become suspicious of having lied, misinformed, or manipulated. We have also seen targeted attacks on social groups to whom the blame has shifted; near the start of the pandemic there were numerous reports of attacks on Chinese expats. This is just one example of how chaotic the world becomes when hard facts are made inaccessible. When the truth is hidden away, lies will replace it.