The Coronavirus has hit every country in the world and every country’s media is reporting on it, or at least they are trying to some governments eager to control the narrative or making it difficult for journalists to report on this global pandemic. where we examine how the media is covering what’s being called the story of the century. It’s the show that explores the responsibilities and challenges journalists face in doing their jobs during these unprecedented times.
In this edition, we’ll look at what it means to cover COVID-19 in countries where there’s a state-sanctioned narrative or outright denial. Recently, many media outlets were quick to report that Turkmenistan at ban the word Coronavirus, turns out. It wasn’t as clear cut as it sounded, as we’ll discuss later in the show, but we are taking it as an opportunity to look at the difficulties journalists around the world face covering a pandemic when it’s politically sensitive.
That’s our feature story in this week’s Corona times. Before a journalist could break the news about COVID-19 the first report that emerged came from a Chinese doctor to his colleagues, it set off a chain of events that have come to highlight the deadly consequences that can happen when the free flow of information If interfered with, and as Hyder abasa reports it’s a situation not just limited to China honoring a many now consider a hero.
Dr. Li Wen Liang was one of the first to warn about the appearance of a mysterious virus in China. But after blowing the whistle in December, he was arrested for spreading rumours. Two months later, he was dead. Killed by the very disease he discovered. His death provoked grief and unusually Rage Against China’s government. By the time lead died, Beijing had recorded more than 31,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 600 dead. China’s censorship seemed to backfire spectacularly. But instead of taking notice of the Communist Party’s mistakes, many governments have repeated them. Several have minimised the danger As a virus, some have denied it exists altogether, while others have imposed an information blackout.
In my case, given my athletic history, if I was to be infected, it would not necessarily concern me. I wouldn’t feel anything other than at most a little cold or be under the weather.
Brazil’s President has opposed every measure to try to contain the outbreak. He’s encouraged people to socialize in public has rejected the advice of health officials and argued with governance for taking the cautions. The result has been this Nazi protest by Brazilians angry at the way the President has handled the crisis. balsa narrow has also attacked the media saying journalists have deceived the public in their reporting of a novel Coronavirus. Journalists in the Philippines also feel they’re being unfairly targeted.
The government passed a new law in March and response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Union of journalists of the Philippines says the legislation makes the government the arbiter of what is true or false. Two journalists have already been arrested under the legislation for allegedly spreading false news. They face two months in prison. Other countries have been accused of exploiting the pandemic to seize more power.
Last month Hungary’s Parliament passed a law allowing Prime Minister Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely, mean there has been for all these measures, you are asking for authorization without any time limits, which is unprecedented in Europe.
Under the emergency laws, journalists in Hungary can be imprisoned for up to five years for spreading fake news. Reporters say the government cannot silence anyone that’s critical of the ruling party. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought press freedom to the forefront Journalists around the world are under threat for questioning their government’s handling of the crisis. And when it comes to Coronavirus, an information blackout can be the difference between life and death. hater, bossy, sciencee news.
Well, let’s discuss all that with journalists facing those issues. Joining me now in Manila is investigative journalist Maria Reza. She was named as one of Time magazine’s guardians and the war on truth along with Jamal Khashoggi. Maria is facing a possible 21 years in jail for reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte his war on drugs, but her trial has been postponed due to the pandemic. In Prague, we have Bruce Pena. He’s the Central Asia correspondent for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, US-funded news organization covering countries where it says quote, free presses banned by the government or not fully established, and journalists Gustavo Ribeiro joins us from Sao Paolo. He’s the founder of the Brazilian report an online media outlet that aims to be a Brazilian voice in the international arena explaining the ins and outs of Brazilian politics. Maria In this clip we saw in this report we saw from Hydra bossy Philippines, the Philippines were also mentioned tell us specifically how are you restricted? How are you prevented from reporting on the corona virus?
I wouldn’t say it’s much prevented, as you know, we’re entering now this is the end of the fourth week of a lockdown. It’s been extended another two weeks. There was a calamity law that it’s one of the longest period president character early on declared a state of calamity for six months in March. And then he signed into law he asked our Congress for enhanced emergency powers. And under these powers, this is where there are tremendous penalties for anyone that The government feels could be working and could be sowing panic among people. So there’s a jail sentence, and then there’s a penalty as well. I think the biggest problem right now that we face, though, is transparency.
Keep pushing for transparency, because as your reporter said, this is this could be the difference between life and death information, the free flow of information very key, of course, these days, Bruce, there have been reports that Turkmenistan has actually banned the word, Coronavirus. Is that true?
Well, I mean, there’s no formal ban per se to that. But in fact, the public is discouraged from saying the word at all. If the police are out on the street and they heard you hear you talking about Coronavirus and using specifically that word, then they will detain you for sure. The government has used it in print a few times and so as the president, but very rarely. And like I said for the general public, you’re not supposed to talk about it at all. And you risk going to jail if you do.
So there’s no coverage of the corona virus in Turkmenistan as we speak.
Only in so far as they say they are aware there’s a global problem. They don’t say it’s affected Turkmenistan and they say they are taking preventative measures to make sure that it does not enter the country. In fact population.
Gustavo President bolsonaro, Brazilian President bolsonaro came up during our clip as well he’s been downplaying the risks of the corona virus from the very beginning how difficult has it been for you as a journalist covering the story and raising awareness of its dangers?
Well person also knows approach to the Coronavirus affects the way people are perceiving this outbreak. When the highest office in the land just says this is the sniffles. A lot of people don’t realise how serious it can be. So for instance, in several state capitals and urban centres. People are just not respecting parenting rules which are not as restrictive as other countries. But every single state in Brazil has approved some sort of restriction. What bolsonaro also makes our job difficult as journalists is that he has, and this is not necessarily something that started with the Coronavirus outbreak. But he has done everything in his power to discredit what the media is reporting and to just simply call fake news. And the President and a lot of his allies are acting as misinformation agents on the databases. So we’ve heard about three very different stories about while punitive damages, if you will, for journalists covering the story all the way up until denying that there is a case whatsoever to begin with Maria, how can you even Present prevent in times like these, the whole world talks about nothing else. All the journalists out there, write and report on nothing else but the corona virus. How can you even prevent people talking people from repent reporting on this issue these days?
So in the Philippines, we’re not being prevented. It’s almost like you have you just have a Damocles sword hanging over your head. So you, you’re, it’s up to you whether or not you offend authorities and they can then say under this new emergency powers law that you have some panic and we do have journalists who have been called in. And then we have even campus journalists who have been threatened, right, so but the big, the big challenge that we have is more trying to make sense of being in the lockdown the president detector early on a month ago put all of us on the island of On the majority of the Philippines, you’re talking about 60 million Filipinos. And yet there were very few details.
So what we’re fighting is more chaos and confusion, chaos and confusion or to be prevented at any cost indeed, these days, Gustavo, what reactions have you been receiving to reporting on the coronavirus? Have you received any negative reactions? Have you experienced anything negative?
Well, a lot of bossa nova supporters just attack us on social media but as is specifically as we target a foreign audience, we are an English speaking media outlet. We have not faced direct backlash, but a lot of our colleagues that report for the Brazilian public have been singled out on social media. The President has what we call here in Brazil, a social media militia that aims at reporters that quote, are not patriotic and And the President always relates patriotism to good reporting towards him and him Brazil a lot. Another problem is the lack of data, the sheer lack of data. So, here we also have to try and do sometimes with our authorities are not doing which is gathering data and trying to make out of very poorly recorded data, try to explain to people why this is happening. So this is an additional hurdle for journalists in Brazil here.
And some foreign correspondents, of course, have also been experiencing hurdles. China and Egypt, for instance, have exposed foreign correspondents for doing their job. Bruce, you are now currently outside of Turkmenistan. Could you be doing your job inside the country?
Not a chance. Absolutely not. They don’t let your correspondence come in to begin with. And secondly, even if for some chance I was inside the country, the first report I filed that said there was some problem with Coronavirus or measures being taken against Coronavirus or even mentioning the word would be it would be out of the country.
And, of course, Gustavo mentioned President bolsonaro as someone who’s not very fond of the media or journalists, per se, certainly he’s in very good company. The US President Donald Trump, has made his disdain for the media and their work known for a long time, but certainly not none more so than during crucial times. like these.
Americans were scared though, I guess, nearly 200 dead 14,000 you’re sick millions, as you witness who is scared right now. What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared? I say that you’re a terrible reporter. That’s what I say.
I think it’s a very nasty question. And I think it’s a very bad signal that you’re putting out to the American people. The American people are looking for answers and they’re looking for hope. You’re doing sensationalism. And the same with NBC and Comcast. I don’t. I don’t like Comcast, I call it Comcast. Let me just let me just say something that’s really bad reported. And you want to get back to report a good set of sensationalism. Let’s see if it works. It might and it might not. I happen to feel good about it. But who knows? I’ve been writing a lot. Let’s see what happens, john.
Well, Maria, if the most powerful person on earth, the leader of the land of the free, is acting this way, does it emboldened? Does that encourage other leaders out there to do the same?
Absolutely. You know, when every when the only tool you have for anything is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So even during this pandemic, do tear down like bolsonaro like Trump threatens right and his threats are, are very, very straightforward. He’s far more violent than President Trump. He said on April one, for example, that if you break quarantine, he told the police to this is a quote, shoot them dead. You know. So in addition to that, we were dealing with the very same thing that Brazil is dealing with, which is the information operations that are there to really attack any journalist or anyone on social media who is challenging and demanding information.
And speaking of social media, Bruce, as I said before, it’s one thing for a country to prevent or restrict coverage, but social media is out there. Everybody’s consuming it in one way or the other. So whether Turkmenistan’s leader likes it or not, the information is coming in is being consumed. Isn’t that the case?
Yes. But you know, it’s more on the level of rumours and bizarre talk because the Turkish government isn’t as strict on the access side, but country and what sites you do access are monitored very closely by the security service. So In a while, in most cases, social networks might might spread the news about what’s happening or even rumours in Turkmenistan. Actually, they were able to filter that out fairly effectively.
Well, it’s very clear that there are some governments out there who use this pandemic to undermine press freedom, Gustavo, do you fear that once this pandemic is over, or at least controlled and away from the media headlines? Do you think this will have long term repercussions for how journalists do their job or are able and allowed to do their job?
Well, not in the way that for instance, Maria in the Philippines have felt or other countries have here in Brazil, both Senado is very isolated politically. And, for instance, a few weeks ago, he tried to circumvent the Access to Information Act, and the Congress swiftly struck down this decree of him. Congress, Congress has tried to What we call here politically quarantine both Senado and reduce his policymaking powers. So at the moment, I don’t see real threat to press liberties in Brazil, but not because of the President. But in spite of the President’s wishes. Maria, what do you think you are very prominent journalists known all around the world? Are you fearing aside from the fact of what has happening in Philippines these days? Generally speaking, when you talk to colleagues out there, do you fear negative repercussions for journalists wants the Coronavirus hype is over.
Look, we were already under threat. Before the pandemic before Coronavirus happened. And you could argue that President detector could have spent the beginning of the year preparing for this pandemic instead of running after the top television network in the country right was waiting for a verdict that was supposed to have come down in one of the cases on April 3, that’s been postponed because courts have been in lockdown. Here’s the good news. The good news is that at this point in time, the president our government needs to focus on this. The law that he’s been given will end in three months and will again, at least be reviewed by our Congress.
So some silver lining out there at there’s cross Fingers crossed there. Indeed, while we in the US we’ve seen Bruce that there is if you will, an opposite effect of what is happening in Turkmenistan Turkmenistan is trying to drown out the noise trying to drown this story in the US is 24 seven wall to wall coverage with the US president while delivering unfiltered Daily News press conference. Do you see a danger in there?
Uh, if I understand your, your question right. The danger from Turkmenistan not covering it? Is that it? Well, basically, how do we journalists deal with presidents who are now using this pandemic to be on air all the time and talk about nothing but the coronavirus unfiltered for many, many hours at length?
Yeah, well, you know, I’m gonna go with the advice that a lot of people are given is that you should be listening to scientists and doctors at this point and not the politicians, they don’t know. Exactly. They couldn’t possibly have that much information about what’s going on.
So, you know, a lot of people are you a lot of politicians are using this for their own purposes that are happening in Central Asia to but in fact, I would if I would listen to what a physician, a doctor, a virologist have to say and trust them a lot more than anything from a politician. Well, if ever, there was a time to listen to the advice of doctors, it’s certainly now Gustavo, what do you think? You know, looking at the media coverage worldwide, not just in Brazil. How do you assess the role of Journalists these days in times of the coronavirus?
I think the press is doing a pivotal work in trying to get information to people trying to make people understand the severity of this crisis. And here in Brazil, just like our colleagues are mentioning, despite what politicians are actively doing, I think more than ever, it is important to have access to data to make data available to people and to make people aware of what’s happening. I hope that this crisis in Brazil will renew people’s trust in the media, which has been going down after politicians from both sides of the aisle, hammering at the press for not reporting exactly what they want, at least now. bolsonaro seems like an outlier, like the only major political actor in Brazil. Just trying to dismiss the Press. So I hope that this might just could have a positive end result.
The problem here is ad spending from companies has dropped, people are not necessarily paying for subscriptions. So we live in this paradox that the media audience is going up, but media revenue is going down. And in Brazil, we already have a very feeble media environment. So it’s, we have reasons to be optimistic, optimistic and reasons for being pessimistic at the same time.
Well, read you share Gustavus optimism that at a time all around the world, perhaps where the trust in journalism is declining, that the media coverage now about this very essential, very important media coverage about the corona virus is if you will, reinstating the trust in journalists all around the world once this is over.
Yeah, absolutely. The mission of journalism has never been as important as it is today. This is where lies can kill and the the ability to demand accountability for government to act in a coherent manner. This is extremely important. I the other part where I’m optimistic is that now that we are all working from home right, all of a sudden the troll army of President detector has been pushed back after he went on to tell people on April one that to tell the police to shoot them dead. All of a sudden overnight. You had real people going online on social media is a trending hashtag ouch detector now, and it was number one, not just in the Philippines, but also worldwide. This hasn’t ever happened before. So who knows? Right?
Yeah, quite a movement. Right there quite some developments in Philippines. From what Maria is saying, Bruce, not to dwell on Turkmenistan per se but do you also are you also hopeful that they will might be some good coming out of this. The role of media the role of journalists out there?
Yeah, well, I think certainly entertainment, you know, I speaking about Turkmenistan, Turkmenistan specifically, I think it already has helped a little bit. I mean, we are able to broadcast in and get some information in there. You know, they don’t learn mass they had don’t have a lockdown. The President has authored several books about home traditional medicines. And so they’re burning, you know, Syrian rooms, outside hospitals and schools to ward off infection. And so we’re at least able to get some information in and tell people that some of these things might not be effective, that there are measures you should think about taking on your own that the government probably won’t recommend. So I think in the end, when this all is over, there will be a better respect for the media in Turkmenistan, certainly at least the foreign media that they’re able to receive inside the country.
And Gustavo, if we take a few steps forward, if you will, once we go back to a normal life. Whatever that may look like and whenever that may be, do you think that the government’s response and government’s perception of journalists might even change to for the better?
Well, when we’re talking about how politicians see the press, then I’m not that optimistic. I think Jebel Senado has singled out as journalists as the enemy. He still has strong support with 25 30% of people who also see us as the enemy. It all depends on how the political scenario will develop in Brazil, I think to see how people will start treating journalists but attacks on the press are not something that started with most Senado and unfortunately, I don’t think they will and once more Senado is no longer the president.
Maria with your extensive experience as a journalist in the limelight, what advice would you give And what advice could you dispense to all your colleagues out there who are facing restrictions right now who are being prevented from reporting on this very important topic?
People want information. And this is a time to give that in whatever way you can. I think Gustavo also talked about the importance of making sure independent journalism survives this crisis, because this could be an Extinction Level Event for journalists for news groups around the world.