At the time of writing, the number of COVID-19 cases globally has reached a million, with more than 62 thousand people deceased. As the future of the outbreak, as well as the havoc it wreaks, are the subject of discussion on one side, vaccination and medical trials are being pursued on another. While specialists all around the world continue to share the vast amount of data they gather about the disease, journalists report on the emerging developments, trying to protect people’s right to obtain news. Yet, as is the case in many other crises, some governments attempt to paint reporting as a sort of “espionage” and a way of sowing discord that damages the fight that is put up.
Although devoid of a chance to follow the stories where they actually take place and talking to the witnesses in person, journalists continue to report on the developments either by translating articles, conducting online interviews, or tracing the stories even longer than they used to.
Journalism saves lives
Reporters Without Borders, in a statement made on 24 March, said that if the press in China, where the first case of the coronavirus pandemic first occurred, were free and the media had informed the public earlier, thousands of lives could have been spared.
Researchers at the University of Southampton suggest that the number of cases could have been reduced by 86% if the first measures, which were taken on 20 January, had been implemented two weeks earlier.
These two reports point to a clear fact: journalism saves lives. Reporting in times of calamities such as epidemics or wars, while protecting the right to receive news, also, by nature, upholds the right to life. This is why it is of vital importance to follow whether measures against the pandemic are carried out, report on the scarcity of masks for health professionals, and write about a construction worker who has to go to work despite calls for “staying at home”.
A wave that started in China
Let us begin with China, where the epidemic first started. China ranks 177th out of 180 in the 2019 RSF World Press Freedom Index. Doctor Li Wenliang was arrested after making the negligence of the Chinese government public. The accusation he faced was circulating false rumors. Reporter Fang Bin posted a video showing at least eight body bags in front of the Wuhan Hospital. Bin was accused of the same: spreading fake news. Bin had promised to do his best in reporting the actual situation in Wuhan. Neither reporter Bin nor Chen Qiushi, who also reported on the virus, has since been heard from. The video Bin posted was banned and all of Chen Quishi’s social media accounts have been deleted.
According to Chinese Human Rights Defenders, at least 450 people have been punished in China for “spreading rumors”.
Similar to the situation in China, other countries have also started to crack down on journalists and censor reports about the virus. Many reporters from Niger, to Cambodia, Serbia, and to Russia, among others, have subjected to such clampdowns. Some journalists have been arrested and the publication of newspapers has been stopped in some countries. The justification for the censorial urges has always been the same, as epitomized by the explanation offered by the Russian media supervision authority Roskomnadzor: “to prevent the circulation of false information”.
Here are some examples of the crackdown on journalists under the blanket term of fighting against fake news: In Russia, media outlets allege to have spread false information might be forced to pay fines as high as 127 thousand dollars, and the reporter might even face a prison sentence. A new article was added to the Cybersecurity Law in Vietnam, according to which persons detected to have “circulated fake news” on the web might be fined. Serbian journalist Ana Lalic was detained for her “news reporting causing panic” following her coverage of the failure to take the necessary medical measures for health professionals.
The situation is not much different in Turkey. Seven reporters in Antalya, Kocaeli, and Bartın, as well as a correspondent who reported that health workers had tested positive for coronavirus in Izmir, have been detained. A recent addition to the accusations alongside “disseminating fake news” is “causing fear”.
Minister of the Interior Süleyman Soylu remarked on 26 March during a television program that proceedings had been launched against 449 social media accounts that had shared “provocative” posts, with the Ministry of the Interior announcing almost on a daily basis that people alleged to have engaged in acts of “opinion manipulation” about the coronavirus and shared “provocative” posts. Turkish Journalists Association released a statement about this issue, saying “barriers to free and independent reporting on matters directly concerning the public interest should be lifted”. RSF representative Erol Önderoğlu stated: “An environment where you don’t have enough test kits, detailed statements, and any possibility to confirm the information you have is already precarious. If you, on top of that, detain any journalist that reports on #COVID19 because they allegedly ‘cause panic’, you cannot expect sensitivity. We need transparency.”
As all this was transpiring, news channels have started to be fined too. RTÜK (Radio and Television Supreme Council) fined Halk TV, Tele 1, and Habertürk due to their coverage of the coronavirus. The fundamental justification was the same: circulation of fake news, violation of the principles of truthfulness and accuracy. While thanking reporters in many of his statements, Minister of Health Fahrettin Koca also warned against the dissemination of information liable to hamper the combat against the coronavirus: “It is unimaginable that serious media outlets would give credit to such news. I would like to ask the public to be careful about where they get their news from. Fighting against false news that aims to cause panic is part of our fight against the virus.”
If a threat does exist, then its nature and the justification for actions taken must be explained
States and governments should, of course, combat false information. It is necessary to deliberate about and make policies on how to prevent circulation of false information and disinformation. Article 19 released a policy report on fighting misinformation about the coronavirus. As is stated in the report and in the reservations voiced by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, if it is claimed that the information shared or expression made poses a threat against public health, then the precise nature of the threat, as well as the justification for any specific action taken, should be made clear. Yet, since the outbreak began, journalists are being subjected to accusations as vague as “spreading fake news”, “sowing fear”, and “causing panic”.
Besides, despite the threat that false information might pose, restrictions brought against the circulation of false information should also be provided for by law and justified as necessary within the framework specified by the Human Rights Committee, as mentioned above. As clearly indicated in the report, these guarantees do not solely apply to truthful expression, and untruthful expression is also covered by the guarantees of the freedom of expression. However, this is not congruous with what happens all around the world. Governments endeavor to censor all information claimed to be false, and criminal law is being put to use for weighty actions detentions, prison sentences, and protracted police custody.
Non-objective information also under guarantee
The 2017 Joint Declaration of four UN freedom of expression rapporteurs, providing guidance for governments, makes the following warning: “General prohibitions on the dissemination of information based on vague and ambiguous ideas, including “false news” or “non-objective information”, are incompatible with international standards.”
Ultimately, correct information is a sine qua non for journalism. Circulation of fake news can indeed threaten public health in such a time of crisis. Even if governments do impose sanctions, this must be done on a legal basis and the justification for it can be clearly established. All these rights are guaranteed by international conventions. What needs to be done is to allow for the right settings and opportunities for journalists to freely report on the developments. Vague justifications such as “circulation of fake news”, “provocation”, “causing fear and panic” must not be used as a stick for reporters.
So, what exactly did Fatih Portakal do?
This became breaking news last night. The coverage said that President Erdoğan had filed a criminal complaint against Fox News anchor-man and journalist Fatih Portakal for spreading lies and manipulating the public through his social media posts. And, of course, the Turkish Criminal Code article referred to is Article 299, the one about insulting the president.
But what does the text of the complaint letter actually say Fatih Portakal did? The text says “The purpose of the suspect here is to throw around these fantastical claims that defy logic and cause panic among our people to cast a shadow on this solidarity (the National Solidarity Campaign)*. The only objective that such a mentality can serve is to cause chaos and confusion and the suspect’s post at issue is simply delirium.” Creating chaos, confusion, casting a shadow on solidarity, causing panic among the people…
The issues might change but what does not is journalists being accused with these vague, ambiguous language. As a matter of fact, it is on the rise. Especially in times of calamity like a pandemic. You cannot obtain an answer without asking the question first and you cannot weather the storm without criticism. We all have common questions we are asking: Are the measures enough? Where do most cases occur? Are enough tests being performed? What is happening around the world? How are we going to come through the pandemic? All the questions you can think of, they need to be asked, to find answers.
That is why the freedom of the press is vitally important especially in times of calamities like pandemics and wars. As good war correspondence cracks the door to peace, good journalism during pandemics saves lives.
*Turkey’s president on March 30 launched a “National Solidarity Campaign” to aid the fight against the Covid-19 where he also asked for donations from citizens. Meanwhile, Turkey’s opposition parties and citizens like Portakal criticized “National Solidarity Campaign,” accusing the government of “squandering collected taxes.