Governments are Using COVID-19 Crisis to Crush Free Speech

Photograph Source: Beatrice Murch – CC BY 2.0

Stop those non-humans who are writing and provoking our people,” says Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov in an Instagram video. The non-humans he objects to are journalists who criticise the Chechen authorities for mishandling their response to the Covid-19 epidemic.

Given Kadyrov has faced allegations of torturing and disappearing critics (which the leader denies), he leaves nobody in any doubt about how unwelcome journalistic questions should be dealt with.

The cause of his rage was an article in the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta by investigative journalist Elena Milashina, who cited Kadyrov as saying that people who spread the coronavirus are “worse than terrorists” and “should be killed”. As a result of these threats, Milashina wrote that people in Chechnya with Covid-19 were hiding their symptoms because they were too frightened to seek medical help.

Authoritarian and proto-fascist governments around the world are using Covid-19 to excuse or divert attention from the arrest, jailing and disappearance of critical journalists. Kadyrov, who acts as a quasi-independent Russian viceroy in Chechnya, is simply more blatant and violent than his counterparts, from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Narendra Modi in India. In few such countries is repression new, but it is deepening by the day under a new guise.

Kadyrov’s actions in Chechnya are a crude but telling example of this toxic campaign against the independent media. The Chechen leader’s threats against Milashina was not the first time she has been targeted for her reporting in Chechnya: two years ago she broke the story of the “gay purge” in which gay men were being abducted, tortured and killed. This February she was assaulted in the lobby of a hotel in the Chechen capital, Grozny, where she was reporting on the trial of a blogger who had posted a film of luxury villas alleged to belong to people close to the Chechen leadership.

Governments worldwide claim that journalists are impeding their heroic struggle against coronavirus, but their real motive is more often to conceal the inadequacy of those efforts. Political elites everywhere fear that the pandemic will expose their incompetence and corruption, weakening their grip on political power and economic resources.

A report by Amnesty International, titled “Crackdown on journalists weakens efforts to tackle Covid-19”, contains a long and detailed list of offenders: new laws against disseminating “fake news” – the definition of which is to be decided by the authorities themselves – has been passed in Azerbaijan, Hungary, Russia, Uzbekistan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Tanzania and in several Gulf states. The Hungarian leader Orban has amended the criminal code so journalists are threatened with five years in prison for “spreading false information” that would impede “successful protection” against the coronavirus.

Governments are highly sensitive to accusations that they are lying about the number of infections or fatalities: in Egypt a newspaper editor who challenged the official figures was disappeared for a month and a reporter who did the same in Venezuela was jailed for 12 days. In Bosnia, a doctor was charged with “misinformation” and creating “fear and panic” and faces a fine of €1,500 after posting on social media about the lack of ventilators and other equipment in a local hospital.

Leaders ignoring their own lockdown and physical distancing orders want to keep quiet about it: in Tanzania, the licence of the online newspaper Mawanachi was suspended after posting a photo of John Pombe Magufuli, the president, out shopping surrounded by a crowd of supporters.

The Turkish government has put extraordinary efforts into hunting down journalists and social media critics, 102 of whom are currently in jail, many accused of being “terrorists” or “spreading terrorist propaganda” – a charge often levelled in Turkey against any critic. No fewer than 64 social media users have been detained in recent weeks over posts about coronavirus.

No sign of dissent or independent information is too small to escape the authorities’ notice: when Ismet Cigit and Gungor Aslan wrote on a news website about two Covid-19 deaths in a local hospital, they were immediately detained and questioned. And even a short detention in Turkey could be a death sentence because overcrowded prisons are hotspots for the epidemic.

Most culpable are states such as India, whose security measures are preventing attempts to lessen the spread of the pandemic. In Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir, the lockdown predates the rest of the world, starting last August when Modi’s government revoked the special status of India’s only Muslim-majority state.

An internet blackout was imposed for 175 days and when it was restored it was in the form of the slow-moving 2G network. But even this, along with other communications, such as the telephone, is subject to sudden and prolonged blackouts nominally aimed at separatists, but in practice hampering or stopping the campaign to prevent Covid-19.

The Indian government has tried with some success to suppress local and foreign media reporting from inside Kashmir, but a special report by the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Srinagar, the largest city in Kashmir, reveals a health system damaged by the constant blackouts. “We were shocked that we had to work without the internet even for a week during the pandemic,” said one Srinagar-based hospital doctor, speaking anonymously, adding that the government had told health professionals not to talk to the press.

Tracking and tracing of Covid-19 victims is made impossible in Kashmir by interrupted communications. A health department official, again speaking anonymously, said there was no way of finding and testing victims during the blackouts, explaining that “it was impossible to trace the contacts of Covid-positive cases during those three days [in early May] as there was no way of reaching out to people”. Paradoxically, Modi has told everybody including Kashmiris to download a contact-tracing app on their phones as a prime means of identifying, testing and isolating those infected by the virus.

Journalists in Kashmir who report about the extent to which draconian security measures have hobbled efforts to suppress the epidemic find themselves accused of glorifying “anti-nationalist activities” and causing “fear or alarm in the minds of the public”.

Autocratic governments everywhere are becoming more autocratic and repressive regimes more repressive. They believe that they can get away with it: frightened peoples are looking to their governments to save them in this time of peril, and do not want to discover that they are ruled by incompetent people determined to serve their own interests and stay in power.

But not all the news is bad. The zeal with which governments from Budapest to Delhi and Grozny to Ankara are pursuing the humblest blogger or smallest newspaper shows that they feel fragile and are afraid. Great disasters shine a bright light on the incompetence and greed of the powers-that-be, exposing them for what they are. No wonder they see independent journalists as dangerous foes, “non-humans” to be silenced wherever possible.

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).