Press freedom vital during the COVID-19 pandemic
May 3 marks World Press Freedom Day around the world. During a global health emergency, a robust media environment doesn’t just mean reporting on the nature and spread of COVID-19, it makes life saving information broadly accessible. And as emergency measures are increasingly used, journalists help hold authorities to account by documenting overreach, providing analysis, engaging in debate about government actions, and sparking dialogue about the different future we all hope to see.
Freedom of expression can be limited during a state of emergency, but only in ways that are necessary and proportionate for the protection of public health. Governments are obliged to protect people from discrimination and violence, including the public “outing“ of people with COVID-19 with the intent of endangering their safety. However, vaguely worded offences such as “false news” and “spreading misinformation” don’t meet the test of necessary and proportionate. Arrests under such provisions unjustifiably limit freedom of expression, and their use has a broader chilling effect leading to self censorship out of fear of reprisals. Ultimately, the best way to protect again misinformation is for authorities to ensure they distribute reliable, accessible, evidence-based and trustworthy information.
Crises are often used as “cover” for some states to continue to target critical voices or even broaden patterns of repression. The COVID-19 pandemic is not exception.
In Venezuela, the authorities are going to extremes to maintain tight control over public health matters and the government’s inadequate response to the pandemic. Darvinson Rojas was arrested on March 21 by Special Action Forces of the National Police and repeatedly pressed to reveal his sources around reported cases of COVID-19. He remains in detention and the charges against him are unclear. He was targeted in the context of widespread arbitrary detentions made against people critical of the government or claiming their human rights.
In Russia, independent journalist Elena Milashina has once again been targeted for her reporting. The day after her article on the government response to the COVID-19 pandemic appeared in Novaya Gazeta on April 12, the Head of the Chechan Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, took to Instagram to issue a death threat by video and accused Novaya Gazeta and its journalists of being “puppets of the West” . The Presidential Press Secretary subsequently dismissed those very real and serious threats as “nothing out of the ordinary” and a mere “emotional” reaction “which is understandable in such a (COVID-19 pandemic) situation.” The Prosecutor General’s office also ordered that Elena Milashina’s article must be removed from the Novaya Gazeta website, claiming that is contained “false information”.
Letter writing > Call on Russia to protect journalist Elena Milashina
Online > Demand that President Putin condemn threats against Elena Milashina
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