While news and facts are more important than ever because of COVID19, many governments are holding back information and curbing the right to press freedom because they fear criticism of their management of the pandemic.
The German section of Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has launched its “Press freedom in the Corona crisis” website this week. The German-language portal lists severe cases of press freedom violations and keeps track of reprisals against journalists. Christian Mihr, Director Reporters without Borders (RSF) Germany, explains the objectives of the new topic page.
DW Freedom: It is difficult to obtain credible, verified information about the COVID19 situation from several countries. Reporters are being censored, threatened or even arrested. How do RSF manage to keep in touch with them?
Christian Mihr: We can draw on our worldwide network of sections, bureaus and correspondents to gather and verify information about Corona-related threats and restrictions for journalists. Some of our correspondents have many years of experience reporting about sensitive issues in restrictive environments and benefit from their long-established networks among local journalists and human rights activists. Like-minded NGOs and the brave work of journalists on the ground also offer lots of insights for our monitoring of the situation.
DW Freedom: In which countries do you think press freedom is suffering the most because of the pandemic?
Christian Mihr: The most severe press freedom restrictions are happening in countries with a history of repression against free media. Regimes like those in China, Iran or Egypt almost seem more concerned about limiting the free flow of information than about fighting the epidemic itself. This even applies for an EU member like Hungary where the government is now asking parliament for virtually unlimited executive powers. Chinese officials and suspected Russian trolls even try to exploit the situation for disinformation campaigns furthering their governments’ geo-strategic ambitions. The Syrian regime might try to monetize on an expected health catastrophe in the country by using it as a plausible explanation for the death of political prisoners who have been jailed or disappeared for many years.
DW Freedom: How many weeks or months do you expect this project to last?
Christian Mihr: We intend to continue this project as long as the acute Corona crisis lasts. Even once the situation will start to normalize, we fear that unfortunately some governments may perpetuate emergency measures such as expanded digital surveillance powers. Therefore it is crucial to watch and name disproportionate measures from the beginning and make sure that emergency legislation or executive orders are limited in time and scope and can be challenged by journalists and other citizens affected by them.
DW Freedom: Will the page be available in languages other than German?
Christian Mihr: There will be soon a similar mirror site on our global website which already offers lots of frequently updated information about Corona-related press freedom issues and our international network is continuing to develop ways to answer to the challenges of this exceptional situation.
DW Freedom: Thank you and good luck with the project.