Lawyer-turned-journalist, Chen Qiushi, posted his last video, an interview with a Wuhan man whose father had died of coronavirus, on February 4, 2020. Qiushi had been in Wuhan for a couple of weeks, posting updates and interviews about the coronavirus to his Twitter and Youtube accounts. On February 6, his family reported Qiushi missing, and the authorities later confirmed he had been detained, allegedly for “quarantine”.
It wasn’t the first time that Qiushi has been detained by the Chinese authorities. Previously, he was held and forced to delete his Sina Weibo account after posting videos about the Hong Kong protests.
The detention of a Chinese journalist comes as no surprise in a country known for its appalling human rights record, tightly controlled state media and fierce grip on the Internet. ARTICLE 19’s annual Global Expression report, which analyses the state of freedom of expression in 161 countries, consistently ranks China in the bottom quartile.
In normal circumstances, Qiushi’s detention may have gone unreported except on days like, Word Press Freedom Day, when organisations like ARTICLE 19 raise awareness of such violations. One thing that the coronavirus pandemic has made clear is that the state of media freedom in one country can have a direct impact on people thousands of miles away, and shoud be of concern to us all.
As Reporters without Borders have argued, if China had a free and independent press, the outbreak of coronavirus may not have become a global pandemic. China’s attempts to silence journalists and doctors prevented people in Wuhan from finding out about the outbreak and changing their behaviour – for example by staying away from the Huanan Seafood market at the heart of the outbreak. A lack of early reporting also meant there were delays in alerting the international community about the extent of the outbreak.
But China is not the only state trying to control the media narrative about coronavirus. As the virus has spread, so have attacks on journalists for daring to report on the pandemic and how their governments are dealing with it. From Serbia to Sierra Leone, India to Iran, tens of journalists have been detained or investigated during the last two months. Arrests are not the only tactic being used: Russian officials, including the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and a spokesperson of the Russian Ministry of Defence, General Igor Konashenkov, have made threats against journalists who have authored critical articles; Egypt and China have both expelled foreign journalists; and many countries, including Bolivia and Ecuador, have passed emergency laws designed to stifle ‘fake news’ that could undermine independent media reporting.
For states like Turkey, Russia and Belarus, arrests and intimidation are a continuation of an already hostile approach to the media. However, we are also seeing worrying trends of restrictions on freedom of the media in countries with greater protections for freedom of expression. The Governor of Florida banned journalists from the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times from coronavirus press conferences because the journalists had asked for social distancing at the conferences. US President Donald Trump has until recently labelled reporting on the true impact of coronavirus as a liberal media conspiracy against him, resulting in countless people failing to take preventative measures at a crucial time.
A public health crisis is exactly the time that journalists should be asking difficult questions. They have a responsibility to hold governments to account, particularly when many states are passing emergency measures that will impact our fundamental rights. Media outlets also have a crucial role to play in providing the public with verified information and debunking misinformation about the illness. But journalism does not only give us facts and information, it can help us to feel and understand the human side of this pandemic, bringing us new perspectives. Journalists can show us what life is really like for doctors and nurses on the frontline; they can inspire us with reports on those who are finding new ways to build ventilators or supply food to those in need. They can name the dead and show us the people behind the statistics, but also provide humour and insight into the frustrations we are all sharing as our movements are restricted. Words can bring us together in our shared, locked down experience.
The pandemic has brought new financial difficulties to an already troubled media industry, with both advertising revenues and print sales in decline. Yet the pandemic itself has highlighted the need for verified, independent news reports, and how attacks on media freedom in one country can have consequences for us all. There is much talk about how the coronavirus pandemic will change our society forever. Let us hope that this will include a reaffirmed belief that a free and independent press is worth both defending and paying for.
Quinn McKew is Acting Executive Director of freedom of expression organisation ARTICLE 19