Mar 31, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus is being used to suppress press freedoms globally

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The coronavirus is providing cover to autocrats, dictators, and even some democratically-elected leaders who were already looking for reasons to undermine the independent media.

Driving the news: Recent examples show the press is being shut out by the government under the guise of stopping misinformation from spreading about the pandemic.

  • In Hungary, the government passed a law Monday granting sweeping emergency powers that Prime Minister Viktor Orbán claims will help battle the coronavirus. The law includes the power to punish those who spread "false information" about the pandemic with up to five years in prison, per NPR.
  • In Egypt, authorities forced a Guardian journalist to leave the country after she reported on a scientific study from infectious disease specialists from the University of Toronto that said that the country was likely to have many more coronavirus cases than have been officially confirmed, per The Guardian.
  • In the Philippines, journalists may face jail sentences of up to two months for "spreading false information" about the virus and a fine of up to $20,000, per CNN.
  • In Iran, where coronavirus cases have soared, authorities have moved to aggressively contain independent reporting about the virus by harassing and detaining journalists, per VOA. Officials have also ordered that the media only use official statistics when covering COVID-19.
  • In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the virus as a media trick. His efforts to blame the media for overstating the pandemic, some fear, could be a playbook for other world leaders to use to downplay the crisis.

In the U.S., President Trump has continued to belittle the press for its coverage of the virus at live press conferences and on Twitter.

  • On Monday, President Trump deflected blame onto the Washington Post when asked about allegations that China — as well as Russia and Iran — is spreading coronavirus misinformation, saying "every country does it."
  • Trump last week attacked NBC News reporter Peter Alexander during a live television briefing after being asked what he would say to Americans that were worried about the coronavirus, a question Alexander later said he thought was a "softball," or an opportunity for the president to answer an easy question.

Between the lines: The president's actions, some fear, give credence to leaders abroad and locally in the U.S. to continue to attack press that they don't like.

  • Case-in-point: Over the weekend Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, an ally to President Trump, blocked a reporter from attending a coronavirus press briefing. Days earlier, that reporter had asked if briefings could be moved online to protect reporters' health.

The big picture: Around the world, press freedoms have already been begun to erode as leaders try to crack down on independent media as a way to consolidate power.

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