The dangerous business of journalism in the pandemic

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Authoritarian restrictions on the press, attacks on journalists in the streets and more accusations of ‘fake news’it’s like a war zone out there. Rachael Jolley looks at the dangers of reporting during the Covid -19 pandemic.

Jolley (@londoninsider) has developed a series of podcasts for Pod Academy on News in the Pandemic, this is the second in the series.

William Horsley: They say that the first casualty of war is truth, but pandemic is in the same category

Jean-Paul Marthoz: Today being a journalist, you don’t show necessarily that you are press. It’s like going to a war zone

Lada Price: In Bulgaria, there are several reports of journalists being attacked, despite clearly identifying themselves as members of the press.

Kirstin McCudden: We started keeping track of journalists who were harassed for covering the protests (which would be part of a normal news gathering routine, of course)

Donald Trump: They are the fake, fake, disgusting news

Rachael Jolley: My name is Rachael Jolley and welcome to Pod Academy. This the second in our series on journalism during the pandemic. Worryingly, we’re seeing the escalation of violence and aggression during this global pandemic as journalists literally battle to report on vital and public interest stories. From physical attacks to attacks on journalists’ reputations to governments introducing new legislation, putting limits on reporting, those that don’t want journalists to report an issue will try all sorts of measures to try and stop them even threatening to try and infect them. These are terrifying trends. The pandemic appears to have allowed the powerful to gain more tools in their armoury when it comes to squeezing media freedom.

William Horsley is co-founder and international director of the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield‘s department of journalism. William is also a former television and radio journalist at the BBC.

William Horsley: They say that the first casualty of war is truth. It turns out that pandemic is in the same category because what it does is it increases physical risk in many ways for journalists as they go about their business, particularly for example, reporting on the lockdowns.

But also it gives governments the reason to assume much more executive power. And this happened against the background, of course, of a shift towards a much more authoritarian style, particularly assaults against the free and independent media.

Rachael Jolley: Lada Price, a senior lecturer in journalism from Sheffield Hallam University, talks about the way that this kind of emergency legislation brought in during the pandemic has been used in Eastern Europe to restrict what journalists can do.

Lada Price:If you look at reports that have been issued by organisations such as Freedom House, Committee to Protect Journalists, Reporters Without Borders they have all raised the alarm about emergency measures that have restricted media freedom severely. Let’s take, for example, Eastern European countries, such as Hungary, where at the onset of the pandemic, the government introduced laws, or rule by decree, indefinitely bypassing parliament. And that is known as the Authorisation Act. And that included actually prison terms from one to five years for those, and that could include journalists, that spread misinformation and false hope.

Rachael Jolley: It’s not just in Eastern Europe that governments have used COVID-19 to pass laws to restrict freedom of the press

William Horsley: By June of 2020, Reporters Without Borders was reporting that half the UN member states had already enacted emergency laws, which were endangering free speech. At the end of the year, the UN Secretary General himself said that there was a pandemic of misinformation and that although the role of journalists was much more important because of the need for good information about the pandemic, in fact, media had been more subjected to restrictions and, of course, punishments. It’s been a trend in recent years, in all parts of the world for governments to undermine the very role, the essence of the role, of journalists as watchdogs holding governments to account and that was exacerbated massively in this time.

All the governments that you would expect that have already exceeded their normal powers, although they may be democratically elected, like in Philippines or Turkey and so on, all of them have seized this opportunity to crack down even further. And we’ve seen in every continent, we’ve seen this criminalisation of the work of the media, and we’ve seen journalists more exposed to arbitrary action, both in terms of, for example, law enforcement, attacks on the street during protests and also this business of bringing charges against them on spreading false information and so on and quite a number of them I mean, Russia, Azerbaijhan, Romania are among them have already indicated that these are going to be very long term. And in the case of Italy, for example, they have sweeping powers which they’re already contemplating extending to the end of 2021. I think it’s a matter of the balance of executive power. This meme, of course, that is bound to become up when we saw it in extremes, in places like China and America with their different political systems.

In China from the very beginning, we saw the government moving to suppress the information about it with the doctor who first blew the whistle being criminalised, and then several citizen journalists, again, being charged. One of them being given a six-year jail sentence for just going around reporting what was happening at the beginning of the pandemic. So if that kind of excessive power of the executive over the other branches of government and the media, the fourth estate, were to continue that clearly would be disastrous.

Rachael Jolley: So why is there growing hostility to the media coming from all directions at a time when it is essential to hold the powerful to account. Richard Sambrook, a former director of global news at the BBC and now director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University explains.

Richard Sambrook: One of the problems is that it’s very difficult in a increasingly polarised environment, which you’re getting in all sorts of countries around the world now, to say ‘but I’m neutral’ because everyone says ‘well either you’re with us or against us. And if you’re not with us, you’re the enemy’.

And the media is seen as not being with one side or the other, and therefore is everybody’s enemy. And at a time when there’s a lot of fear and a lot of uncertainty. Then it’s very easy to provoke people to turn on a perceived enemy in that way.

The other thing has happened is that authoritarian governments have used the cover of the pandemic, if you like, to bring in more restrictive press freedom laws and controls over the media and so on as well. So it’s a sort of political opportunism really.

Rachael Jolley: And then there were arguments about ‘fake news’ .

Lada Price: People were worried about what fake news can do and how people can be affected. And that unfortunately gave an excuse to governments to put even further restrictions. The danger is that even true facts can be deemed as fake news. And alternative viewpoints, for example, from opposition leaders that perhaps challenge the government decision or even medical professionals that don’t quite fit that official line or the line and policies governments are adopting can be labelled as fake news.

Rachael Jolley: Of course, Donald Trump regularly used the term ‘fake news’ to try and close down journalism he didn’t like.

Kirstin McCudden, managing editor of the US Press Freedom Tracker, has been keeping a record of Trump’s attacks on the media.

Kirstin McCudden: [00:07:44] So one thing here at the US Press Freedom Tracker that we keep in addition to our database of press freedom violations is the Trump media tweet database. And that’s a database tracking all of President Donald Trump’s anti-media tweets since he declared his candidacy for presidency in 2015.

We published on the database one month before the election and by then he had tweeted negatively about the press 2,300 times. So we keep that database not because it’s a fun thing for our reporter to scan each and every one of the president’s tweets but because we believe it has a chilling effect.

Rachael Jolley: All of these factors have combined to make reporting the news a dangerous business during the pandemic

Lada Price: A large survey found that a lot of journalists were not provided with that protective equipment, so it’s difficult to go out and actually speak to sources in person and those sources are worried about retaliation, the measures that will be actually imposed on them.

Kirstin McCudden: In the early days there was uncertainty around how to best news gather during COVID. Newsrooms were closed. Media in America is considered essential personnel, but many newsrooms out of safety precautions closed down and journalists have been working remotely.

Some governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo received accolades for daily press briefings, taking live questions. Others, for example, in Florida, the governor was asked by a Miami Herald reporter to modify the daily briefing, the briefings for social distancing. And that reporter was then barred from the next briefing because of that request.

We started keeping track of journalists who were harassed for covering those protests, which would be part of a normal news gathering routine, of course, but wearing masks while doing it. So everything from being threatened to be coughed on, you know, ‘Oh, I have coronavirus. I’m going to cough on you’. That’s a threat and in some states can actually be considered assault, because when you say you have a communicable disease and threaten to give it to somebody else, it can be considered assault. We often saw it as in a harassment scene. We saw journalists being called fake news, saying that they were fear-mongering because they wore masks to these protests .

Of course, in America masks became a political statement. And that is a little different from other countries because from the top of our government, you know, the president, Donald Trump, often didn’t wear a mask and told others not to

Rachael Jolley: Egged on by government attitudes some of the attacks have been very serious indeed .

Kirstin McCudden: The pandemic specific assaults that we have documented here at the Press Freedom Tracker have both come when journalists are covering lockdown protests. So that’s against shelter- in-place orders, not for them, but against them and in one in California, a man held a journalist at knife point over the footage that he took at this at a shelter in place in California and another one in New York, so it is coast to coast, a journalist was assaulted while covering an anti-lockdown protest at the borough of Brooklyn had been under higher restrictions than other parts because it had a higher rate of infection and positivity rate, and a journalist was assaulted there as well.

Rachael Jolley: For many reporters, this really is a hostile environment.

Here’s Jean-Paul Marthoz, who teaches media and terrorism studies at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium.

Jean-Paul Marthoz: The trend that we have seen rising in the last year is today being a journalist, you don’t show necessarily that you are press, it’s like going to a war zone. Journalists have told me, you know, when I go to a war zone, like in Mosul, for instance, a few years ago, I decided to take off my press flak jacket and take a military flak jacket because I thought it was safer to be a soldier than the journalist in a war zone. So it’s a bit similar. I think there’ve been so much media bashing that today absolutely respectable media organisations think that they might be under threat if they are too visible which is really a big issue.

Kirstin McCudden: There are some newsrooms who have decided to stop wearing lanyards, have their journalists stop wearing lanyards, that’s press pass badges around their necks, while covering protests because in some areas that’s actually more dangerous to have something around your neck that can be pulled, that can be tugged.

Jean-Paul Marthoz: A real issue of concern for democracy. The fact is that the COVID crisis has opened up the doors of still more confusion and still more room for conspiracy theories. And in those circles, of conspiracists of course, the online world is not a world of dialogue and discussion. It’s a world of aggression up to the point of pushing journalists, not to cover the story because it’s too hot.

Rachael Jolley is a journalist and research fellow at the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield. Listen to other podcasts in the series here.

Photo of cameraman by Korie Cull on Unsplash

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