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Press Freedom Update April 17
Many governments around the world are taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to crack down on press freedom and criticism. Reporters Without Borders (RWB) sent a letter to the United Nations on April 13 calling for that body’s special rapporteurs on health and freedom of expression to condemn governments that have used the pandemic to crack down on press freedom. The letter includes cases of censorship, arbitrary detention, harassment or violence against journalists, as well as legislative moves against press freedom, in a total of 38 countries. The list is not exhaustive, but includes verbal attacks in the press by Brazil and U.S. governments, reporters arrested in Algeria, Jordan and Zimbabwe, and new anti-press policies in Hungary, Cambodia and China. RWB has developed a tool, called Tracker-19, to help investigate the pandemic’s consequences for journalism and recommend ways to defend it.
Chinese authorities have detained documentary filmmaker Chen Jiaping since March 5, when he was arrested and charged with subversion of state power. According to an open letter written by his wife and shared on Facebook on April 12, Chen is under “residential surveillance at a designated location.” Chen recently shot a documentary about Xu Zhiyong, a Chinese activist and scholar who was detained in February after calling on Xi Jinping to resign amid the coronavirus crisis. “Detaining Chen Jiaping for filming a documentary on a subject the Chinese government doesn’t like is absurd,” said Carlos Martinez de la Serna, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ program director in New York.
Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov threatened journalist Elena Milashina after she reported in the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta that quarantined Chechens had stopped reporting coronavirus symptoms for fear of being labeled “terrorists.” In a speech on April 13, Kadyrov blasted Russian authorities for failing to silence her and indicated that Chechen police would take matters into their own hands, “if [security services] want us to commit a crime and become criminals, then say so. Someone will take the burden of responsibility and will be punished under the law.” Milashina is a former correspondent for the CPJ, which called for Russia to condemn the threat and protect her safety.
Liberian police have attacked or threatened at least four journalists for coverage of COVID-19 since March 19, according to a CPJ report. On several occasions in late March, police summoned Charles Bioma Yates, a publisher of the privately owned Integrity Watch Newspaper and a talk-show host on local broadcaster Super FM, over a Facebook post alleging corruption and unequal application of quarantine rules for people coming to Liberia from abroad. Police also called Joel Cholo Brooks, the publisher of the independent news website GNN Liberia, demanding on March 20 that he reveal a source in a story about Liberia’s enforcement of social restrictions.
Indonesia has ordered police to crack down on “coronavirus-related hoaxes” and “hostile information about the president and government,” a directive rolled out on April 4 that Reporters Without Borders calls an effort to suppress criticism of the government. “In this directive, the Indonesia police are taking advantage of the need to combat disinformation linked to the COVID-19 pandemic in order to rein in journalists who might want to publish information critical of President Joko Widodo or his government,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of the Asia-Pacific desk at RWB.