With fears of the coronavirus and restrictions on crowds still in effect, there were no defiant protests when journalist Maria Ressa emerged from a Philippine courtroom on June 15, convicted on a dubious charge of “cyber libel.”
Neither were there massive demonstrations in early May, when the country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, was forced off the air just as independent reporting and accountability over the COVID-19 response were arguably most needed.
“It was timed for the pandemic,” says Ressa, who was one of the press freedom “Guardians” featured as TIME’s 2018 Person of the Year. “Because at any other time there would have been people out on the streets.”
An outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, Ressa has long been in legal crosshairs, facing 11 court cases in 2018, and eight warrants for her arrest in 2019. But she says the pandemic has “exacerbated” suppression of the media.
Rights groups agree. They say crackdowns on the press are unfolding across the world — and escaping public backlash — as governments use the health crisis as a pretext to hound critics and tighten control.
Globally, the number of regimes hostile toward journalists was already on the rise. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 2019 marked the fourth straight year that at least 250 journalists were incarcerated for their work.
Many of those were in Asia. The world’s most populous continent holds the dubious distinction of being home to both the most prolific jailer of journalists (China) and the deadliest places for them to work (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Philippines and Bangladesh). The region’s journalists have long been targeted by trumped up tax investigations, license cancellations, and threatened or actual arrest, alongside other forms of harassment. Now they face a tightening net.
“The public health crisis provides authoritarian governments with an opportunity to implement the notorious ‘shock doctrine’ — to take advantage of the fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question,” says Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF.
‘A dreamlike situation for any authoritarian government’
Under the guise of safeguarding public health, governments are introducing sweeping new powers. In Southeast Asia, many of these regulations are being wielded for political ends, such as interrogating, arresting and detaining critics who question a government’s handling of the crisis.
“Efforts to control the virus are giving authoritarian rulers the perfect cover to adopt draconian levers to rein in their opponents and critics,” says Murray Hiebert, a Southeast Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha has threatened to suspend or edit news that he deems “untrue.” The state of emergency imposed in March and extended in May, hands the government such power, as well as the right to order media organizations to “correct” any information deemed problematic.
In Myanmar, the health ministry cited virus misinformation when it ordered the country’s four telecoms operators to block access to 221 websites accused of carrying “fake news.” Although the exact list of sites has not been made public, several news outlets suddenly found they were inaccessible.
“This period is a dreamlike situation for any authoritarian government,” says Daniel Bastard, RSF’s Asia-Pacific director. “They can pretend to protect their citizens from ‘fake news’ while being the only authority that can precisely decide what is true or what is false. In this regard, the coronavirus crisis is a formidable pretext to impose censorship.”
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has fueled a deluge of disinformation. Social media platforms are abuzz with conspiracy theories about the origins of the disease, bogus miracle cures, scam at-home tests and hysterically inflated death counts. The viral spread of these hoaxes has spurred an “infodemic” that can crowd out accurate information and make it even more challenging to fight the disease.
Even Silicon Valley’s normally regulation-adverse tech companies have taken notice: Facebook said nearly 50 million pieces of content related to COVID-19 had to be flagged in April with a warning label for disinformation, while Twitter challenged more than 1.5 million users for spreading false information and displaying “manipulative behaviors” during the same month.
This avalanche is giving governments all the justification they need for exercising existing censorship laws or enacting new ones.
Singapore’s Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act, introduced last year, empowers officials to determine what constitutes a falsehood, and to order corrections to or the removal of offending posts. The city-state’s minister of communications said the explosion of pandemic misinformation has retroactively justified the law, which was invoked in April against the online news commentary site States Times Review after it accused the government of concealing the true toll of the virus.
That same month, Vietnam introduced fines of 10-20 million dong ($426-$853) — equivalent to many months’ of minimum wage salary — for disseminating “fake news” on social media. Police had already used pre-existing regulations to summon more than 650 people over coronavirus-related posts by mid-March, according to Amnesty International. Of those, 146 were fined and the rest forced to delete their statements. Others, like 28-year-old Facebook user Ma Phung Ngoc Phu were less lucky, receiving jail sentences of up to nine months.
“Authorities have tended to cloak their crackdowns in notions of combating ‘fake news’ and the need to suppress misinformation that could cause a public panic,” according to Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative. The reality, he says, “is that authorities are using vague and broad emergency powers to suppress criticism of the government’s virus response.”
In Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen was initially skeptical about the threat posed by the coronavirus, the government has given itself unprecedented emergency powers that include the right to ban “any information that could cause unrest, fear or disorder.”
While the new law has not been invoked, the government has faced criticism for accelerating its sustained crackdown on the political opposition, civil society and the media. According to a count by Human Rights Watch, as of the end of April Cambodian officials had arrested at least 30 people on such charges as spreading “fake news” about the virus and “stirring chaos.” Among them was a journalist who was imprisoned and had his online broadcasting license revoked. His offense? Quoting a speech by Hun Sen.
“Of course press freedom has been threaten[ed] because of the virus,” says Nop Vy, founder of the Cambodian Journalists Alliance. With the emergency powers, he adds, the government can “totally put press freedom and freedom of expression under control.”
Several journalists around the region declined to comment for this story, even anonymously, citing anxiety over possible arrest just for describing the situation. One reporter, who declined to use a name or country, expressed “concern” about continuing to work in the current environment.
Even in democracies where press freedom is thought to be more firmly entrenched, journalists are finding themselves under attack.
In Indonesia, where a democratic transition followed the end of dictatorship in 1998, journalists who criticize the president can now be imprisoned for 18 months under a new directive that targets both coronavirus-related hoaxes and information perceived to be hostile to the leadership.
Neighboring Malaysia, where a new administration scrapped the reform agenda of its predecessor, is investigating a correspondent for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. She faces a possible two-year prison sentence on charges of breaching the peace after she reported last month on roundups of refugees and undocumented migrants in coronavirus “red zones.”
And in the world’s largest democracy, India, a flurry of arrests and legal cases has dogged journalists covering the negative impact of the pandemic. Prior to imposing a sudden lockdown on 1.3 billion people in March, Prime Minister Narendra instructed news executives to publish “inspiring and positive stories” about the government’s efforts. Not long afterward, the Supreme Court ordered all media to carry “the official version” of the country’s battle with the disease.
‘We’ll never go back to normal’
The international response to these attacks on press freedom has been muted at best. The U.S. State Department released a single sentence expressing “concern” over Maria Ressa’s conviction 48 hours after it was announced. Earlier this month, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed alarm at how governments in the Asia-Pacific region were exploiting the pandemic to clamp down on free expression. But the sentiment had little impact. In a joint statement, eight of the countries singled out for censure replied that extraordinary times require “extraordinary and unprecedented measures.”
Yet once this unprecedented period subsides, it’s unclear whether they will be inclined to relinquish the arsenal of decrees, regulations and new powers rolled out for the health crisis. Few came with sunset clauses ensuring they would not outlast the emergency, and governments may get comfortable with their information monopoly. Emergency restrictions on civic life, politics and economics are already being rebranded as the “new normal,” threatening to become entrenched in the post-crisis reality.
Read more: We Can’t Let the Virus Infect Democracy
Even where emergency powers did include clearly defined time limits, extension efforts are underway. In the Philippines, the “special temporary power” granted by Congress was set to expire on June 24. But President Duterte, who once compared the country’s constitution to a “scrap of toilet paper,” has requested another 90 days. And it could continue much longer. According to his spokesperson “we’ll never go back to normal” without a COVID-19 vaccine, a development that, at its earliest, is not expected until sometime next year.
Amid such public health and political crises, many journalists who threaten official narratives by pushing for accountability and transparency face escalating risks that could soon make it impossible to operate freely.
“It’s so dangerous to be a journalist right now,” says Ressa. “But the mission is more important than ever. We have to stand up for it or we will lose so much.”