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Disease control: The diagnosis. How Covid spread an epidemic of attacks on media freedom

Photo credit: Etienne Godiard

Between March, 25 and July, 15 Justice for Journalists Foundation (JFJ) and Index on Censorship have monitored attacks and violations against the media, specific to the current COVID-19 – related crisis. Media freedom violations are catalogued with a map hosted on Index’s current website and on the Justice for Journalists Media Risk Map.

JFJ has been closely following the troubling developments in its key region of interest – the 12 former Soviet Union states (presented below). Whereas Index on Censorship has been following developments in China, Asia and Australasia, North America, Central and South America, North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe.

The chapter about the FSU region is available below. The full report is available on the Index on Censorship website.

Introduction

When the world first heard of a novel, flu-like virus emerging from the city of Wuhan in China, the team at Index immediately took an interest.

We could not have known how the world would be locked down in an unprecedented effort to control the spread of the virus – few could have predicted that. But what was clear even early on was that the news coming out of Wuhan was not the whole story. Once again, Chinese heavy-handed censorship was visible in underplaying the severity of the outbreak.

By the middle of February, we realised that this was no ordinary health crisis and that dramatic, global efforts would be necessary, including restrictions on individual freedoms – something which we do not accept lightly as an organisation.

“That was a worrying signal,” said mapping project leader and Index associate editor Mark Frary. “Index’s experience in the nearly 50 years since it was founded is that moments of crisis are often used by governments to roll back on freedom of speech and the freedom of the media to report on what is happening. The public’s right to know can be severely reduced with little democratic process.”

Index has tracked this history, and has many examples published in our archive which covers the years 1972 to today. Even in February Index was already being alerted to attacks and violations against the media in the current coronavirus related crisis, as well as other alarming news pertaining to privacy and freedoms.

We knew from bitter experience that once these freedoms are eroded, they are hard to get back. We therefore saw raising awareness of any attacks during the Covid-19 pandemic as of paramount importance. We knew it would require a global response.

As a result, we began work on an interactive map to track attacks on media freedoms, the introduction of new legislation or changes to existing laws that threatened to stop journalists from doing their jobs and social media restrictions that threatened the free reporting of information.

Working with our partners at the Justice for Journalists Foundation, we asked our teams, our network of activists and our readers to report from around the world on cases where journalists were being silenced under the cover of Covid-19.Speaking about the partnership, JFJ director Maria Ordzhonikidze said: “We were grateful to Index of Censorship for including the Justice for Journalists Foundation into the effort to monitor and analyse the global impact of Covid-19 on the freedom of speech. Autocratic regimes around the world used the pandemics as a pretext to further suppress any descent and independent reporting. Many countries swiftly introduced amendments to their criminal codes that enabled to arrest and put journalists behind the bars for alleged spreading of fake news and sowing panic. Silencing investigative reporting to hide the real statistics proved more efficient than fighting against the virus in those countries.”

Since then we have investigated hundreds of individual incidents, ranging from efforts by governments to restrict access to only approved journalists to physical attacks on reporters. We have investigated the disappearance of those reporting on social media and cases where journalists have been fined large sums for reporting what their governments have called ‘fake news’ but is, in reality, no such thing.

This report, eight months on from the launch of the Disease Control project, summarises what we and our partners have found in various regions of the world in the period from February to mid-September. More incidents have come to light since and we will continue to report on these attacks.

The purpose of this is not just to report on those incidents but to make sure that restrictive legislation is rolled back when the pandemic is over and that those who have reported on this crisis are not unfairly targeted or worse.

Overall in the FSU countries, the Covid-19 pandemic became a convenient and widely used pretext for the authorities to further clamp down on critical reporting. The tactics of silencing independent media workers varied from country to country, but some common trends are visible.

In the group of dictatorships that deny the existence of Covid-19 in their states, such as Tajikistan and Belarus, media workers who wrote about the real state of affairs in hospitals, morgues, universities and shops were attacked and their publications suppressed. Turkmenistan falls into the same category of countries, however, JFJ received no reporting from the ground about attacks against independent media.

Autocracies that admit the existence of Covid-19, such as Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, but also Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, have been widely prosecuting journalists for not following the variety of freshly introduced rules and regulations and spreading “fake news”. Fines, interrogations, administrative protocols, detentions, arrest and even lengthy prison sentences have been characteristic methods of suppressing independent reporting there.

In Ukraine, a country known for repeated physical hostility against journalists and a weak judiciary, in more than a half of registered incidents journalists were beaten up, detained and their equipment was seized or damaged by members of the public.

Media workers from Armenia, Georgia, Moldova and Kyrgyzstan, although silenced, threatened, summoned for questioning and deprived of access to information, were the least affected by the Covid-19 clampdown on media freedom out of the rest of the FSU countries. 

Russia

In absolute figures, Russia is the record-setter in the number of Covid-19-related attacks against journalists, with 102 cases registered over the last six months.

Astonishingly, all three of the registered physical attacks were conducted in Russian orthodox churches in different locations during crowded Easter services. In two cases journalists were beaten and forcefully removed from the churches by priests and in the third instance by a celebrity actor turned religious fanatic, says our partner JFJ.

There were 15 cases of non-physical attacks with media workers verbally harassed, insulted, threatened and forced to delete or correct their publications under the pretext of them distributing “fake news”, “deliberately false information” or being involved in “extremist activity”. The perpetrators of such attacks were varied and included state TV propagandists, the police, local administrations, the State Duma committee for investigating the interference of foreign states, regional prosecutors, the FSB and the general prosecutor’s office.

The most widely used method of harassing the media workers in Russia is initiating administrative or even criminal proceedings against them. JFJ’s experts registered 50 incidents when administrative protocols and fines were issued to the media workers and outlets for distribution of fake news.

At the start of the pandemic, a new Article 207 of the Criminal Code on fake news about coronavirus was swiftly introduced and used to initiate at least 15 criminal cases against media workers. Under the pretext of investigating fake news about deaths, conditions in hospitals and the actual spread of the disease the police often illegally pressured journalists and bloggers to reveal their sources.

Some regions went further. For example, in Bryansk, a criminal case was opened against Alexander Chernov on abuse of media freedom under Article 13.15, following his article questioning the effective measures taken by operational headquarters on coronavirus. And in Dagestan, Steven Derix of Handelsblat and his Russian film crew were detained while filming and charged with the violation of both the self-isolation regime and regime of counter-terrorism operation.

Using the pretext of pandemics, the police clamped down on the last legal method of protest available to the Russians – individual protests. Journalists who were either reporting on those or taking part in individual pickets themselves were routinely issued fines. JFJ registered a total of 18 cases where journalists received official warnings or fines for violating the rules of holding a protest, breaching the social distancing or self-isolation

Most affected countries in the FSU

Kazakhstan saw 26 Covid-19-related attacks against media workers registered. This country swiftly introduced a state of emergency and issued numerous penalties, warnings and fines to media workers for violating it. The same pretext was used to deny journalists’ access to locations and information to cover the pandemic. For example, the annual parliamentary meeting to hear the government’s budget report was conducted behind closed doors – an unprecedented move. The meeting was not broadcast online either, with no official explanation provided.

At least five journalists and bloggers were summoned for lengthy and exhausting “talks” and interrogations following their critical publications on the subject for “dissemination of deliberately false information during the state of emergency”. Six media workers were detained and arrested for 10 to 60 days for violating the state of emergency. For example, civil activist Alnur Ilyashev was sentenced to three years of imprisonment and banned for five years on public activities for his Facebook post criticising the policies of the ruling party Nur Otan in regard to the pandemic.

Fourteen attacks were registered in Azerbaijan which gives this country the same risk coefficient as in Kazakhstan – 0.14 (attacks per 100’000). The authorities of these two countries treat their independent media in a very similar way: in Azerbaijan seven journalists were detained and arrested for up to a month for violating quarantine rules. For example, Ibrahim Vazirov was arrested after refusing to delete online reports about Covid-19, and given 25 days in prison for disobeying “a lawful request by the police”. Five more media workers were detained for violating the quarantine rules, fined and released.

Elchin Ismaillu, a newspaper reporter with Azadlyg, who had already been serving a prison sentence, was put into solitary confinement for five days after criticising the penal colony’s measures against the spread of Covid-19.

In Belarus, where authorities deny the existence of Covid-19 cases in the country, attacks against journalists who covered the pandemics looked somewhat schizophrenic.

On one hand, several media outlets received official letters from the Ministry of Information requesting that published stories detailing the spread of the pandemic in Belarus be deleted. The mirror site of the forbidden news media website Charter 97 that reported on deaths from Covid-19 in the country was blocked entirely. Some bloggers, like Olga Zhuravskaya, who brought her son to test for the disease and recorded the process in her blog, were fined for hooliganism. Journalists Larissa Shirokova and Andrei Tolchin, who reported about the first death and dozens of hospitalisations, were fined for producing media content without a licence and its illegal dissemination. Media-Polesie agency was fined for “sharing prohibited content” that was “damaging to the national interests of the Republic of Belarus”.

Even journalists from the Russian official broadcaster Channel 1 covering the pandemic in Belarus had their accreditations cancelled for “spreading information that did not correspond to reality”.
At the same time, under the pretext of “the epidemiological situation in the country”, several journalists from independent outlets, including Radio Liberty, were refused access to official Parliamentary meetings, and the accreditation of BelaPan was withdrawn.

Vasili Matskevich, journalist and a member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, tragically died in April aged just 46 from what was officially acknowledged as pneumonia.

Ukraine saw 35 incidents of Covid-19-related attacks against media workers. This country upheld its position as having the most dangerous environment for journalists with 23 recorded incidents of physical violence. Journalists were beaten up and their equipment and recordings destroyed while they were gathering evidence on how various businesses, churches and other premises were complying with the quarantine rules. One example is the violent attack on the camera crew of Espresso.TV near a cafe. After the correspondent Ilia Eulash went on the air, an unidentified man ran up to the camera crew, grabbed the camera and threw it into the river. Another reporter, Dina Zelenskaya, started to film the unfolding attack on her mobile phone. The man ran up to her, knocked Zelenskaya to the ground and grabbed her hair. Then he ripped her phone out and threw it into the river.

Bogdan Kutepov of Hromadske.ua was beaten up by the police in Kyiv’s Mariinsky Park while he was broadcasting a rally by entrepreneurs demanding the government terminate the lockdown. That was the only registered physical attack by the authorities.
There were nine incidents of police preventing journalists access to court hearings, city councils and other official buildings and events under the pretext of quarantine and social distancing measures. In two cases, security guards and orthodox priests blocked camera crews trying to film quarantine measures relating to church buildings.

Least affected countries in the FSU

Moldova remained largely unaffected by repressive Covid-19 restrictions, with just one case of harassment and insult registered against Diana Gatcan from Ziarul de Garda newspaper.

In Georgia, out of seven recorded incidents, two were physical attacks against journalists aimed at preventing them from reporting on the pandemic. Blogger Giorgi Chartoliani was attacked at a protest against lockdown measures in Mestia, Svanetia, and journalist Gocha Barnovy attacked during his interview with Rustavi-2 TV about the lack of protective measures in Georgian orthodox churches during Easter services.

Two freelance journalists – Khatuna Samnidze and Nino Chelidze – were summoned for interrogation by the Georgian State Security Services for their Facebook posts on mortality rates and statistics of Covid-19 cases in Georgia.

Armenia, with its population of 3 million, seems to have the highest risk coefficient per 100’000 – 0.67. However, all 20 recorded incidents related to police letters to media outlets requesting removal of a Covid-19 related story that contained criticism of government policies. In many of these cases the media refused to abide without any consequences.

In Tajikistan, the authoritarian state where monitoring of attacks against media is severely constrained, the authorities deny the existence of Covid-19 cases. Independent journalists and media who reported objective facts about the medical and economic impact of the pandemics were silenced by police “for sowing panic”. The Radio Liberty-Radio Ozodi website was blocked, and media workers who had expressed critical opinions received death threats and insults via phone and social media. Our experts registered five incidents.

In Uzbekistan, with just 11 recorded incidents, the authorities widely used new Covid-related restrictions to suppress independent reporting. Several media workers were fined for not wearing a mask, five bloggers were sentenced to between seven and 15 days in prison for “violating quarantine rules”, and there were two failed and one successful attempt to forcefully quarantine independent journalists without any legal basis. All of the attacked media workers are known for their objective reporting on the economic toll of the pandemic and criticising government policies in relation to Covid-19.

In Kyrgyzstan the government swiftly introduced a state of emergency and only provided the state-owned broadcaster KTK with access to information. It refused to accredit other journalists, nor did it share official information with any independent reporters. This was done under the pretext of health considerations, in direct contradiction of the country’s legislation.

At the same time, the tragic death of Kyrgyz journalist and human rights activist Azimzhon Askarov, who was serving his 11th year in prison, is widely considered to result from infection with Covid-19 and a lack of medical help in prison.