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Asia Leads in Press Freedom Breaches Tied to Pandemic Reporting

Journalists wearing surgical masks as they work at the Legislative Council, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Hong Kong, China, Feb. 26, 2020.
Journalists wearing surgical masks as they work at the Legislative Council, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Hong Kong, China, Feb. 26, 2020.

Asian governments are doing more to harass and arrest journalists reporting on the coronavirus pandemic and to keep accurate news of the crisis from reaching their populations than those in any other region, press advocates say.

Tracking by the International Press Institute, a global network of journalists run out of Austria, shows Asia leading in most of its measures of press freedom constraints tied to pandemic reporting. The organization follows arrests and legal charges, restricted access to information, censorship, fake news rules it deems excessive, and verbal or physical attacks.

The 102 arrests or charges IPI has counted to date in Asia are more than those in all other regions combined. The only measure by which Asia comes in second, to Europe, is in censorship.

Strongmen and populists

Ravi Prasad, IPI's advocacy director, told VOA last week that part of Asia's dubious distinction is a result of simple math. With more countries and people than any other region, it's more likely to rack up cases.

Just as important, though, he added, is that most of those countries have a history of only modest respect for a free press or none at all, with elected but populist governments or outright dictators in charge.

"So the common thread is the kind of leadership; it's either strongmen who lead the country or populists," Prasad said.

The Middle East-North Africa region and sub-Saharan Africa have their share of populists and autocrats running countries that, as in Asia, tend to rank low on annual press freedom measures. On average, the Middle East-North Africa region actually scores worse than Asia, as measured by Reporters Without Borders, another press advocacy group.

IPI and others, though, can only count the cases they know of, and some countries are more opaque than others, whether because they're riven by civil war or adept at keeping their abuses secret. The Middle East and North Africa have both, although advocates also cite China as an especially difficult country to see into.

The most repressive of them also have virtually no independent media to speak of; with all or most outlets in the government's grip, there's much less chance of unwelcome news slipping out.

Even so, Prasad said the IPI's data offer a fair regional comparison.

"Given the constraints we all have in getting information from certain regions of the world, yes, I think our numbers are a good reflection of what's happening," he said.

Other groups using their own methods to track press freedom breaches tied to pandemic reporting around the world show the same broad trend. France's Reporters Without Borders and the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists have also counted more efforts by governments to mislead the public, censor the media or harass journalists reporting on the pandemic in Asia than elsewhere. VOA's own tracker shows Asia leading the way as well.

First among worse

"If there was a sort of snapshot at the end of June, of course Asia would be the most affected continent and the continent where journalists are the most impacted," said Pauline Adès-Mével, Reporters Without Borders’ editor in chief and head of publications.

Adès-Mével was reluctant to single out any one region now, though, while the pandemic continues to wax and wane around the globe. As confirmed daily cases of COVID-19 picked up across Africa in the months after June, she said, so too did reports of local authorities cracking down on those reporting on it.

For their part, IPI and CPJ still count more press freedom violations in Asia, and nowhere on the continent more so than India. The country now has the most confirmed daily COVID-19 cases in the world and a tally of total cases second only to the United States.

Journalists there have been beaten by police for breaking lockdown restrictions despite being officially exempt from the rules, even after producing their press credentials. Others have been sued for unflattering reports on the pandemic's biting fallout and the government's muddled response.

In mid-June, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh launched a criminal investigation of Supriya Sharma, executive editor of the news site, for reporting on a "model village" taken under the wing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where residents were going hungry under the lockdown. Sharma could face four charges, the most serious of which carry a five-year prison sentence.

The complaint claimed she misrepresented a villager's remarks. In a statement, said it stood by the story and called the investigation "an attempt to intimidate and silence independent journalism, reporting on conditions of vulnerable groups during the Covid-19 lockdown.”

Besides the arrests and lawsuits, Modi's government had also tried convincing the country’s Supreme Court to order media outlets to clear any reports on the pandemic with the government before publishing. Although the court rejected the request, Sharma said the attempt still sent regional authorities a powerful and dangerous message.

"When the top levels of government seek to clamp down on independent reporting then local authorities feel emboldened to silence journalists who are seeking public accountability, which possibly explains why we saw a slew of cases against journalists, many of whom were arrested or booked for their reports on the pandemic and the lockdown," she told VOA.

The central government's loss at the Supreme Court has not stopped its own efforts, either.

Fake news ruse

Aliya Iftikhar, senior researcher for the CPJ's Asia Program, said the government has expanded its powers under existing laws and used them to target journalists reporting critically on its response to the crisis.

"While press freedom has been under threat in the country in recent years, the government has plainly used the pandemic as an opportunity to crack down on critical reporting," she said.

That attitude combined with India's exceptional size, population and COVID-19 case load all contribute to the many press freedom violations being logged there in connection with reporting on the pandemic, Iftikhar added.

Rights groups say governments' claims to be acting to curb fake news, while a genuine problem, is more ruse than reality and that many of their efforts do just the opposite.

"Fake news and disinformation spreads when there is lack of genuine and correct information through the mass media," the IPI's Prasad said. "Governments should be working closely with the media to give a real clear picture of what's happening in the countries instead of clamping down on them and allowing space for fake news to spread."