The Pandemic and the Press

reporter, photographer, coronavirus pandemic
A reporter and photographer conduct an interview during the coronavirus pandemic in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on April 15, 2020. Photo credit: © Jim West/ZUMA Wire
Reading Time: 14 minutes

Journalism is a lot like police work: It often requires shoe-leather reporting and showing up where things are happening. A pandemic makes that more difficult. When the ability to move around and investigate firsthand is hampered, lots of misinformation can be propagated by governments seeking to manage and control information. 

Ahead of Sunday’s World Press Freedom Day, we spoke with Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, about the role of the media in the current pandemic and how different countries are trying to restrict its work. 

Simon details how governments have taken direct action against journalists for their COVID-19 coverage in what he calls the global “COVID crackdown.”  

He explains how China has set the stage for the idea that covering a pandemic requires censorship, and how President Donald Trump has used his office for a misinformation campaign that tries to deceive the public about his administration’s response to the crisis. 

And, for the most part, governments have been getting away with their efforts to impede independent journalism without being called out by other countries — all of which are also busy dealing with the pandemic. Simon reminds us that this is precisely why the work of journalists is so important in times of crisis.

Adding to his concerns is the degree to which so many other issues are being ignored as a result of the COVID coverage — due in large measure to the limited economic resources that journalism has today, all exacerbated by the current economic conditions. 

Simon also notes that the approximately 250 journalists imprisoned around the world for doing their job now face an increased risk of infection, which could equal a death sentence for some of them.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. This Sunday marks World Press Freedom Day, but what does that actually mean?
Jeff Schechtman:  

In China, the censoring of journalists in Wuhan may have cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world, including here in the US. In Iran, Sri Lanka, and Sierra Leone and many other places, journalists have been arrested or threatened for coverage of COVID-19. In every corner of the planet, imprisoned journalists are facing almost certain death sentences from the disease, if not released from jails in places like Guatemala, Libya and Pakistan. And if that isn’t enough, in a world that was already increasingly authoritarian, the threat to journalists everywhere is heightened by the pandemic.

Jeff Schechtman: So who is watching out for them? A lot is written every day about journalism and its current state of economic affairs, but not enough about the individual journalists that are often on the front lines. They are the essential workers in the business of truth. Here to talk about this today, I’m joined by Joel Simon. He is a longtime journalist in California and Latin America. He’s the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His most recent work is We Want to Negotiate: The Secret World of Kidnapping, Hostages and Ransom, and it is my pleasure to welcome Joel Simon here to the program.
Jeff Schechtman: Joel, thanks so much for joining us here on WhoWhatWhy.
Joel Simon: Wonderful to be with you.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, it’s great to have you here. A long time ago, people said that the internet was going to somehow democratize information, that it was going to lead to greater transparency. In many ways, as we’ve seen online news and the internet evolve, it has led to more censorship and more threats to the press. Talk a little bit about the nexus that you see in that.
Joel Simon: Well, they’re not entirely contradictory. The democratization of information, which has undoubtedly occurred, creates complexities that make it more difficult for people to discern what is true and what is not true, and makes it easier for malicious actors to exploit this environment. It’s the same concept in the democratic political system itself. That’s why we have representatives. That’s why we have structure. That’s why we have certain institutions that perform this role.
Joel Simon: So it is unquestionably true that you can sit at your desk anywhere in the world, and I always talk about when I started out as a journalist, covering Latin America, and my job was often to read the local newspapers, and find stories in those newspapers, and I’d go out and kind of re-report them, and then disseminate that information to … I was writing, in those days, for newspapers in California. So disseminate that information to the public in California. Now, you can sit at your desk and do all of that, and that’s revolutionary. It’s amazing.
Joel Simon: But it also, as we have seen, means that there are all sorts of actors, or governments, or whether just people looking to monetize eyeballs through exploiting prurient interests and certain kinds of information. They are part of disinformation because, as I said, and they’re undermining and distorting our ability to get the information we need, making it easier for governments to censor and control information. So that’s the moment we’re living through now. Our information system is being tested as never before, and lives are in the battle.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that we’re seeing, to your point about governments creating more censorship and more pressure on the press, it’s almost a copycat kind of behavior, as certain governments do it, as certain governments have success in doing it, other authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning regimes around the world see that as kind of best practices, and it seems to be building on top of itself.
Joel Simon: What we’re seeing now, around the world, and I’ve never seen anything like what’s happening today, we’re calling it the COVID crackdown, and there are a couple of elements that are involved in the COVID crackdown. One, it’s global. It is truly global. It is happening everywhere. Number two, authoritarian governments, as you mentioned, are always opportunistic. They’re always looking for ways to justify their suppression of information, because they’re threatened by independent information. So it could be a political and ideological system, I.e. communism under the Soviet Union. It could be fighting the war on terror. We saw many governments around the world exploit that letter without legitimacy, claiming that journalists were undermining the fight against terrorism.
Joel Simon: So what we’re seeing today is authoritarian governments around the world exploiting a legitimate concern that information that is misleading or wrong could have consequences in terms of public health, but what they’re actually doing is consolidating power, imposing regimes and censorship, cracking down on what they call Fake News, which means the government, that will determine what’s real and what’s fake, and then, even in the case of China, putting forward this narrative that you can’t fight a global health emergency without censorship.
Joel Simon: And what’s really alarming is that some of the rhetoric, as I mentioned, is being appropriated from President Trump. This framework that Fake News is a threat to the public, and especially in the context of the pandemic, that is being appropriated by governments around the world to justify crackdown, and note that this pushes back with an alternative vision of the role of the media in a pandemic. We need political leaders, including the president of the United States, to celebrate the role of an independent media that journalists play in informing citizens, and keeping governments accountable. Because the alternative narrative being promulgated by China, that you need to control and manage information, and censor the press in order to fight a global health emergency is gaining acceptance and a foothold around the world, and governments are cracking down on a free press as a result.
Jeff Schechtman: And why do you think that there is so little pushback, that even in places where you might expect it, it’s not happening today?
Joel Simon: Well, I think there are a lot of reasons. One, governments are exploiting fears. So people are genuinely afraid, just to cite some examples, India, which is the world’s largest democracy, a vibrant and pre-press [inaudible] government has put forward this framework that only the government is in a position to provide credible, authoritative information to the public, and they’re looking to kind of reinforce that notion in law.
Joel Simon: South Africa, an ever-leading democracy in Africa, an example to the region, has promulgated a Fake News law that basically criminalizes reporting that the government itself deems to be fake, and then we’re seeing other governments around the world that are more authoritarian-leaning. For example, in Hungary, where the president there, Viktor Orbán, essentially stripped the parliament of any authority, and basically appropriated for himself using the threat of COVID-19. And so, there is genuine fear, and governments are exploiting that.
Joel Simon: The second thing is there is no global leadership. As I mentioned, there needs to be leaders around the world, in the United States and in Europe, pushing back against this notion that we need to control and manage information, in order to fight the disease. To the contrary, we need the free … This is a global threat, and I think it requires information, and we need to ensure that information flows freely across borders. Governments and policymakers need information to formulate the correct response. The public needs information to ensure that it takes appropriate action, and that the information is credible, and we as citizens need to hold our government and institutions accountable for the decisions they make. And we cannot do that if we don’t have timely and accurate information.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the other impacts of COVID-19 is that it is limiting access, that we hear traditionally about shoe leather as being an important part of reporting, and the idea of go-there as being an essential part of journalism. None of that can happen in this environment.
Joel Simon: Well, yeah. Everyone’s in their home, and there’s a lot of really innovative reporting that’s happening. You know, on the phone, using social media, connecting to people who are eyewitnesses, and building journalism around that. But, you know, sometimes you just have to be there.
Joel Simon: We had this horrible incident in Nova Scotia, in Canada, where a gunman opened fire on the community. Over a dozen people were killed. It was a horrific event. And in normal times, journalists would go there and they would cover that story, and report on it, and try to understand what the circumstances were that led to this horrible incident, and also investigate whether the authorities responded appropriately.
Joel Simon: Well, that’s not happening. That’s one very small example, but it’s already … The authorities essentially said, “We don’t want journalists to come to our community because they represent a health risk.” There’s some legitimacy to that concern, but I think that, in these times, we need to work together to ensure that journalists can perform their essential role. And that’s a small example, but these kinds of events are playing out around the world and in this country, of course.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s just been said that the world will be different after this current crisis. What impact, long-range, do you see on journalism from what we’re going through now? And is there a positive side at all? Is there any creative destruction that comes out of the experience that we’re in now?
Joel Simon: Well, I do think it’s a pivotal moment, and some of the things that I’m seeing, I’ll be honest with you, are very troubling. First of all, like the most local level, the business model that defends journalism is under tremendous threat. So local communities, they rely on newspapers that can’t be distributed. There’s no advertising. These local media institutions are already under tremendous financial pressure, and they’re collapsing. So local news, across the country, and in fact around the world, has suffered tremendously as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. And I’m not sure that that is coming back.
Joel Simon: Secondly, zooming out to the largest possible level, I mentioned the China narrative, which is being promulgated, which is that democracies are messy, democracies have this kind of free will environment in which information, sometimes accurate, sometimes not accurate, circulates freely, and that creates confusion and undermines the ability of governments to respond appropriately to this kind of public health emergency. That narrative is taking hold and undermining the traditional kind of framework in which there’s protected journalism on a global level, including international legal principles that guarantee the free circulation of information and ideas.
Joel Simon: So that is the threat, that we’re going to live in a very different world in which the international framework is compromised, and in which the financial model is compromised. In terms of creative destruction, the thing I would point to, and the innovation that I do see, is that media organizations, because they have no choice, are figuring out ways to cover complex global stories, and build networks of local journalists around the world, and tap into their knowledge and information. And I will say that the reporting itself, in some of the leading American institutions, has been outstanding. I mean, I think we have to recognize that the leading American media institutions have responded in a really inspiring way. And so, hopefully some of that momentum can be sustained.
Jeff Schechtman: What’s gotten lost in the process, as so much reporting has focused on the pandemic, and various aspects of it, and as the attention of the public has as well? What’s going on below the surface that we’re missing? And what responsibility does the press have in that regard?
Joel Simon: I think what’s going on below the surface is everything else. I mean, as I said, there’s a couple of things happening, when we talked initially about this kind of the democratizing impact of this technology, and one concept that you sometimes hear people talk about is censorship by noise. So in other words, we’re not deprived of information, we’re overwhelmed by it. And sometimes, that’s a deliberate strategy, where governments or other malicious actors pump information that’s false or misleading into this ecosystem, and people just don’t know what to believe, and that’s a kind of a form of censorship.
Joel Simon: And to a certain extent, we’re seeing that, sometimes inadvertently and sometimes deliberately, in other words, people are struggling to make sense of all the information that’s out there. All the contradictory information frame. Our political leaders are not helping because they’re giving disparate information, but that’s a grave concern, certainly that I have. But I think what the other resulting impact of this is that so many other critical stories, stories about our everyday life, stories about domestic politics, story about global developments, stories about this thing that is consequential and monumental, climate change that represents an existential threat to all of us to a much greater degree than this terrible pandemic, those are not getting talked about. Those are not getting covered.
Joel Simon: And so, that’s what worries me the most, that the kinds of day to day work with CPJ does defending the rights of journalists around the world to ensure robust and dynamic coverage of these critical global events, we have a really hard time breaking through because it’s all COVID-19, all the time. We’ve reoriented our work to defending those journalists who are reporting on the pandemic. We think that’s vital, but we think there are so many other stories, so many other critical stories out there that are not getting covered as a result.
Jeff Schechtman: The other side of that is, of course, how much can the public absorb, given the fear that goes along with it that you talked about before.
Joel Simon: Yeah, as I said, that’s a huge problem. And it’s a challenge that journalists face, and particularly in this environment, where we have President Trump doing this. It’s a kind of moderate equivalent of the Five O’clock Follies, the Vietnam era press conferences where the generals would basically stand up there and dissemble and mislead. You know, now we have a modern equivalent of that with President Trump. So it’s a huge challenge for the media.
Joel Simon: The media, I think, would struggle with this story in the best of circumstances, because what good journalists are trying to do is break through the noise, distill the essential information that the public needs, present that in a way that they can access and understand, and act on, and also ensure that the leaders, the political leaders, but also the kind of institutional leadership that we need to fight this kind of global and national health emergency, those people are held accountable for the decisions they make. And that’s extremely difficult to do, as I mentioned, in the best of circumstances, but even more difficult to do without the appropriate political leadership, and an effective communication from the top.
Jeff Schechtman: In a broader sense, your organization, CPJ, just did a report recently, issued a report recently about the Trump administration in the media.
Joel Simon: Yeah. So this was conceived of in the pre-COVID-19 era, but CPJ is a global organization. We defend the rights of journalists everywhere in the world, and we certainly are concerned about press freedom in The United States, although we tend to focus on the most serious and significant issues. And back in 2013, we released a report on the Obama administration in the press, because we felt that, while President Obama talked a good game, certainly supported the notion of a free press, and spoke about the importance of press freedom and the work of journalists in a democratic society. Some of his policies actually undermine those principles, including his aggressive prosecution of leakers, his control over information, his seeming desire to bypass traditional media, and look for other means of communicating with the public, in which he was less likely to be held accountable.
Joel Simon: So we were concerned about that. We released a report called ‘The Obama Administration and The Press’. It got a lot of attention. To its credit, the Obama Administration responded. They were upset by the report, but they engaged with us, and they took some action that led to improvements. We decided we really needed to take a hard look at the Trump administration. Unlike the Obama administration, it does not act stealthily. President Trump declares every day that journalists are the enemies of the people, and they’re Fake News. And his hostility towards the media, he wears it on his sleeves, obviously obsessed with the media, which is why he adopts this antagonistic approach. But we were, as I mentioned at the beginning, it’s also being appropriated around the world by authoritarian leaders, this kind of rhetoric to justify a crackdown.
Joel Simon: So we decided we needed to take the same kind of hard look at the Trump administration, which we did. We found that, not only were some of the worst Obama administration’s policies being continued, including aggressive prosecution of leakers, but the rhetoric that President Trump was using was really undermining public confidence in the media itself, and the credibility of the media. The media has its own internal problems that it needs to address, certainly, but President Trump’s rhetoric was not helping, and that was even more critical in the context of a global health emergency.
Joel Simon: So the report which was written, both reports were written by Len Downie Jr, who was the former executive editor of the Washington Post, and oversaw his Watergate coverage, so has extensive experience in context for making these kinds of judgements. And the one difference that I will highlight is, where the Obama administration engaged constructively, they certainly didn’t like our report, and expressed their feeling, and that we haven’t treated them as fairly, but they engaged and they made improvements. We have not gotten any engagement from the Trump administration. We sent a letter to the President, we reached out, Len, when he was doing this report, did not have the opportunity to engage with spokespeople in The White House. So we were disappointed by that, and I think it’s indicative of the way the Trump administration abuses this issue, and of course, not just its underlying hostility towards the role of the institutional media, but its lack of willingness to engage with critics, and try and resolve differences.
Jeff Schechtman: Before I let you go, I want to talk a little bit about journalists that are jailed around the world today, and the impact of COVID-19 on them.
Joel Simon: Yeah. Well, you know, one of the things we’ve documented over in the last several years is that record numbers of journalists are imprisoned around the world, and part of it is this pre-COVID-19, this Fake News framing, which is a gift to authoritarians. So there are over 250 journalists in prison around the world, unjustly, and we recognize that their health was at grave risk as long as they remained in prison because, unquestionably, COVID-19 is going to spread through prisons around the world. They can’t self-isolate, they don’t have access to medical care. This could become a death sentence. So we’ve launched a global campaign, it’s called Free The Press, to win the release of these journalists imprisoned around the world. We’ve gotten a hundred organizations to become involved. We’ve produced videos with journalists who’ve been in prison, and been released as a result of international advocacy, and we need the public to support this.
Joel Simon: So if you go to our website, cpj.org, on the front page, there’s a link that says Free The Press, and if you click on that, it will take you to a petition that we ask people to sign, and join us in supporting our campaign to win the release of journalists in prisons around the world. We already have close to 10,000 signatures. The campaign will culminate this Sunday with World Press Freedom Day, a UN-designated celebration of press freedom, and we certainly can’t celebrate press freedom and the role of journalism, when 250 journalists are imprisoned around the world, and their lives are at risk as a result of this pandemic.
Jeff Schechtman: Joel Simon, I thank you so much for spending time with us today here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Joel Simon: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast, and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from GPA Photo Archive / Flickr, President of Russia (CC BY 3.0), Narendra Modi / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0), European People’s Party / Flickr (CC BY 2.0), Villa Somalia / Flickr and RSF.org.

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