The right to access information is incredibly important, now more than ever. Yet amidst a barrage of coronavirus disinformation aimed at sowing further chaos, many governments’ reactions to the pandemic have been to crack down hard on media outlets and journalists who are trying to provide the accurate information and facts that so many of us need at this time.
As British Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden put it: trusted news outlets are a “fourth emergency service at this time”.
- In recent days, police in Venezuela violently detained a journalist and social media commentator, Darvinson Rojas, in reprisal for reporting on Covid-19 in Miranda State.
- In Iran, the government has imposed sweeping restrictions on coverage, including in the country’s Kurdish region, as part of a systematic effort to downplay the scope of the public health crisis. Mohammad Mosaed, a reporter who criticised the government’s response to the pandemic, has been barred from practicing journalism and suspended from social media.
- Egypt, similarly, has pressured journalists to downplay the number of infections, reprimanded the bureau chief for the New York Times because of a tweet and forced a Guardian journalist to leave the country after she reported on a scientific study that said Egypt was likely to have many more coronavirus cases than have been officially confirmed.
- Turkey has launched legal proceedings against 316 social media users, charging them with inciting hatred and enmity by spreading concern about Covid-19.
- Authorities in Thailand are using “anti-fake news” laws to prosecute people critical of the government’s response to pandemic.
- In South Africa, which has long positioned itself as a press freedom leader in Africa, the government has enacted a new law that makes it a crime to publish “disinformation” about the virus.
- In Russia, the state media regulator Roskomnadzor ordered two media outlets to remove COVID-19 reports from their websites and social media. The regulator also published a warning that it would take punitive measures against the “dissemination of false information” and attempts to “sow panic among the public and provoke public disturbance.”
The Myanmar government continues to crack down on free speech and arrested three street artists who were merely trying to create awareness about the coronavirus pandemic through a mural.
- In Azerbaijan, which is one of the world’s leading jailers of journalists, the president, Ilham Aliyev, recently proclaimed that battling Covid-19 could require a crackdown on the opposition and a few days after, the opposition leader was arrested.
- New emergency legislation in Hungary will punish anyone who publishes “false information” about the coronavirus with up to five years in prison, leaving it up to the repressive government of Viktor Orbán to decide what is true.
- In Honduras, the government responded to the outbreak by suspending the clause of the constitution that prohibits censorship and protects the right to free expression.
- In Belarus, Sergei Satsuk, the editor of an online newspaper that is well known for its investigative reporting on the country’s healthcare system, was arrested for criticising the president’s Covid-19 approach.
- Turkmenistan, second to last in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index 2020, has even banned the use of the word “coronavirus”.
But it gets worse. Despite the fact that China’s suppression of information and reporting on the initial outbreak of the virus in the city of Wuhan in December delayed the response to the emerging contagion, the government is now using its state media and global propaganda network to try and rewrite history.
State censorship and active information management is a critical part of the response that China claims it used to bring Covid-19 under control, even as the pandemic spreads through the rest of the world.
More alarmingly, this framing, including malicious rumors that the virus was developed by the US military as a biological weapon, has gained currency around the world, including in Iran and Russia.
The WHO speaks of an “infodemic”. Its Director-General recently said fake news “spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”
Propaganda outlets supporting Russia and China are already producing a barrage of coronavirus disinformation aimed at sowing further chaos.
Tackling disinformation and why it matters
Disinformation is an enemy spreading almost as quickly as the virus that it is spreading false information about. Lives depend on accurate and timely information. As Josep Borrell, Head of the European External Action Service, said at a press conference earlier this week:
“Disinformation is playing with people’s lives. Disinformation can kill.”
Media freedom is at the heart of helping tackle a fast-moving crisis. 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.
The spread of disinformation, and some of the measures introduced to tackle it, have a severe impact on the right to access information as laid out in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Do states have the right to remove articles with false information as a way to ensure the public has access to accurate information? Should they?
Tackling so-called fake news (whether this is a helpful term or not will not be discussed here, but the term will be used because of its prevalence in popular understanding) have been on the agenda for many governments for a while now. Coronavirus is also forcing tech giants to rethink their attitude towards disinformation in ways that no political crises have before. At the moment, it matters more than ever as misinformation and false information not only risk people’s lives, but can have a severe impact on stopping the spread of the virus.
Two prominent examples include YouTube’s decision to take down all videos linking 5G to Covid-19. And Facebook announced that Whatsapp will impose new strict limits to slow the dissemination of fake news. At the end of March, Twitter set the new tone by taking down two tweets by Brazil’s President Bolsonaro that were critical of quarantine measures (the only other world leader this has happened to so far is Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro). A new study from the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford says that these platforms are more likely to respond to Covid-19-related misinformation than, for example, political misinformation.
It is important, and indeed necessary, to put measures in place to try and prevent disinformation and ensure access to accurate information. But what measures? Is it reasonable to, as in Hungary, to face up to five years in prison for spreading false information? And who says what exactly should be labelled false? And would different measures be acceptable during a crisis such as the ongoing pandemic?
The unprecedented public health crisis that the Covid-19 outbreak has caused has legitimately prompted states to take drastic measures to protect the health and safety of their residents. Some of these measures are restricting a number of individual rights and liberties enshrined in constitutions and in the Universal Declaration.
While emergency legislation can prove necessary, it can also – at the click of a computer key – remove hard-fought rights, including media freedom, which the public has spent centuries winning. Therefore it is vital that any new measures and legislation are kept under close parliamentary scrutiny and not normalised or allowed to stand on the statute book once the crisis is over.
Democratic debate in national parliaments, in the media and the internet, as well as access to official information and documents are essential elements of any free and democratic order and of particular importance in crisis situations to maintain trust and confidence within society.
“Germs don’t respect censorship,” Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, told New York Times. “The censorship might stop the momentary criticism, but it could fuel the public health crisis.”
Why are some governments interested in amplifying the spread of disinformation?
So while some governments invest their best efforts in tackling disinformation, other states, mainly Russia, China and Iran, are actively engaging in the spread of it. The Russians’ tactics have a canny circularity. According to Lea Gabrielle, a special envoy and coordinator of the Global Engagement Center at the US State Department, they push out a false message, which the Chinese and Iranians pick up and promote, and then Russian actors will repost the Chinese or Iranian versions of the message to make it seem like new information that had originated independently elsewhere.
Chinese state-controlled media and social media channels have strongly promoted the idea that the Chinese model is superior in tackling Covid-19, while highlighting global expressions of gratitude for Chinese aid delivery, including in Italy. Many experts argue that besides crafting a better international image, China’s overall goal is to maintain social stability at home.
Using information and influence as a weapon is not new, especially not in Russia. In Soviet Russia, spetspropaganda (special propaganda) was being taught as a separate subject at military academies.
The use and emphasis on information operations has, however, increased in recent years as information has been singled out as an important domain to dominate and have superiority in, as Russian doctrines consider the main battle space in modern warfare to be the mind.
On the one hand, with regards to the Covid-19 epidemic, pro-Kremlin disinformation outlets have claimed that the outbreak is a hoax. On the other, they indulge apocalyptic scenarios, suggesting that due to the pandemic the Schengen system has collapsed, NATO will dissolve, the EU is paralysed, the Baltic states are doomed, there are no doctors in Lithuania, and Ukraine is in free fall. The entire project of “globalisation” is over! The coronavirus is the EU’s Chernobyl. But then the whiplash comes again: The virus is not dangerous at all. It can be cured with saline in four days.
The problem is that the virus in fact cannot be “cured with saline”. Anyone following this advice risks not only their own health, but also the health – or worse, the lives – of other people. The Kremlin’s disinformation machine is seeking to undermine essential solidarity and trust at a time when disinformation can well and truly kill.
These campaigns aim to stoke and exploit emotions and to sow distrust and division. Several Members of the European Parliament wrote a letter addressed to the President of the European Commission, among others, stating that they were seriously concerned about current disinformation and propaganda efforts coming especially from China and Russia.
“It is clear to most of us observing the situation that there is an effort to undermine the EU and sow mistrust among the local population and European neighbours towards the EU, its democratic values and institutions.”
To Russia, a divided Europe, for instance, is less capable of sustaining sanctions and other measures that makes life difficult for the officials in the Kremlin. A divided NATO is less of a threat as it means their ability to take action is hindered. And so, while one article or two cannot be compared to the harm that a tank or two can cause, information can surely be said to be a weapon. It is not meant to kill, but the opposite – to cause as much harm as possible without using kinetic force.
Some of the most common disinformation narratives
The European Union’s East StratCom Task Force, a branch of the EU’s External Action department set up to better forecast, address, and respond to disinformation has been tracking disinformation related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The most common narrative they have come across in pro-Kremlin media is that the US created the coronavirus, demonstrating how primarily China and Russia are taking advantage of the crisis to undermine their shared adversary, the United States.
The second most common is that the EU is failing to cope with the crisis and is disintegrating as a result, together with the border-free Schengen area. In particular, this narrative of failure and lack of EU solidarity seems to be trending after the delivery of Russian aid to Italy. “The EU is selfish and betrays its own values” are widely promoted.
The narrative that the virus is being used as a weapon against China and its economy comes in third place, and in fourth place is the rather creative notion that the whole coronavirus crisis is a secret plan of the global elite.
These narratives are promoted not only by pro-Kremlin sources but also several domestic networks and sources in EU member states, Eastern Partnership countries, the MENA region, China, the Western Balkans and African countries.
In general, pro-China and pro-Russia narratives are amplified, for instance ones claiming that Russia and China are “responsible powers”. Pro-Kremlin media has particularly focused on Russian aid delivered to Italy, emphasising that Russia is helping Italy and the EU is not. The message appears to resonate with domestic audiences: several videos are circulating on Instagram in Italian showing individuals swapping the EU flag for the Russian flag, or displaying Russian military vehicles on Italian streets.
However, Italian journalist Jacopo Iacobini has reported that 80 per cent of the Russian supplies are actually useless. He also collaborated with the investigative journalism site Coda Story and they published an article on 2 April, arguing that Russia’s assistance was really an intelligence and propaganda operation.
Moscow is furious about Iacobini’s critical reporting on Moscow’s humanitarian mission to Italy and Russian TV stations, news agencies, and Russian foreign ministry briefings have been calling out Iacobini by name. On 2 April the Russian Ministry of Defense also published a threatening statement against Iacobini’s reporting on its facebook page.
“He who digs his grave will crash into it,” it read.
There is no doubt that governments are facing unprecedented challenges during this pandemic. This cannot however be an excuse to clamp down on the press and thus restrict people’s access to information. Journalists and media actors carry out indispensable work that serves the public good. Their work must be protected, not undermined, and the public’s right to know should not be erased during this time.
The right to freedom of expression and information is the lifeblood of democracies and now, more than ever, it needs to be at the heart of governments’ responses.