GP Insights # 321, 4 April 2020
On 31 March, the government in Hungary passed a decree taking cognizance of the health emergency caused by the outbreak of coronavirus. The decree grants sweeping emergency powers to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to help battle the coronavirus and this includes the power to punish those who spread false information or panic about the pandemic with up to five years in prison. In the face of the pandemic, many States battling the outbreak have used special laws to control the spread of fear and panic by controlling the flow of information on the affected and death cases in their respective countries. In an effort to control the information, the countries have clamped down the existing media institutions, criticizing the mishandling of the outbreak.
On 27 March, Egypt expelled a correspondent of British daily, 'The Guardian' over a report citing a study that challenged the official count of coronavirus cases in the Arab country. The paper's correspondent, Ruth Michaelson, was asked to leave the country after her press credential was revoked following the publication of the information.
What is the background?
In Egypt, Ruth Michaelson reported unpublished research by Canadian infectious disease specialists estimating an outbreak size of over 19,000 cases in early March as against the official data by the Egyptian government of only three confirmed cases. Egypt has a strong intolerance for critical reporting. The 'Reporters Without Borders' (The Press Freedom watchdog) has ranked Egypt 163 out of 180 countries globally after the country expelled a British Journalist in 2018 over his reporting of the migrant crisis. Similar to Egypt, Iran has barred a reporter, Mohammad Mosaed, for criticizing the government's response to the pandemic. And so, has China, when a freelance journalist Chen Quishi, who was covering the outbreak in Wuhan disappeared after his first reportage since 6 February. According to a report by the Amnesty International, a Venezuelan journalist has been arrested on 21 March for his critical coverage of the government's inability to contain the outbreak. In Malaysia, journalist Wan Noor Hayati has been charged with sedition laws over her political commentary and Facebook posts on an incoming Chinese cruise ship to Malaysia post the outbreak in the country.
In East Europe, a Serbian journalist was detained by the police on 1 April on charges of causing public unrest and damaging a hospital's reputation after she reported a shortage of protective medical equipment at a medical centre. In a rare instance, the journalist was released following public pressure. A State apology reversing the emergency decree was announced in the country to centralize the information during the coronavirus emergency. Reverting to Hungary, a similar emergency decree will now deny journalists access to information, and on occasions even threaten them. The Guardian has reported an increase in threatening comments on social media and in emails to the journalists in Budapest warning the staff that they would end up in jail in case of adverse reporting.
Each of these countries who have attempted to centralize information by censoring the media has also witnessed an exponential growth in the coronavirus cases and is under an authoritarian regime trying to upend the crisis. As of 1 April, Egypt has 456 cases of the new coronavirus with 21 fatalities. Iran has 55,743 cases, China 81,639, Malaysia 3,483 and Hungary 678 cases respectively.
What does it mean?
First, strong leaders will never let a good crisis go waste if it means exercising a certain amount of control on transparency and accountability to stay in power for long. This is evident in states with authoritarian leaders like Viktor Orban in Hungary, Sadat and now a strong man politician Sisi in Egypt and the Supreme Leader in Iran. Similarly, Malaysia has had strong leaders like Mahathir, witness an unstable democracy with partial and partisan control over the media. In recent times, while on the one hand, the single power regimes are facing massive protests to remain in power, the pandemic has given an opportunity to these leaders to tighten the grip on governance and curb resistance altogether.
Second, it has been a diabolical time in the information age when on the one hand the states have frequently used media and information to contact track the people with the disease and spread awareness. On the other hand, it has been reluctant to outweigh its progress by any form of transparent reporting on the number of fatalities within the countries.
Third, the crackdown on the media also reveals the deep and integrated presence of the surveillance systems used by the countries to swiftly act against any and every information put out in the public domain. Initially aimed at using the surveillance system to track the Covid- 19 patients violating the quarantine or the lockdown will now be used by the same State to trace any perceived violence of information by media institutions.