National Opinions

Truth is the first casualty in war, including this one

Truth is the first casualty in war, goes the old saying; the corollary might be that journalists are often the collateral damage. That has probably never been more universally true than in the ongoing battle against the novel coronavirus. Across the world, autocratic and democratic governments have responded to the epidemic by restricting information, criminalizing independent reporting and harassing reporters - verbally and sometimes physically.

"Call it the covid-19 crackdown," says Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. His organization has compiled what he says is a partial list of 200 cases of arrests, threats and harassment related to media coverage of the pandemic. That includes the jailing of journalists in the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Iran, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Turkey.

No, no one has yet been arrested in the United States; President Donald Trump has limited himself to lobbing insults and smears at the reporters who attend the daily reality show he calls a press briefing. But Trump has given governments around the world a template for suppressing independent journalism about the epidemic: the construct of "fake news."

At a webinar organized by the Aspen Institute last week, Simon rattled off a long list of countries that have adopted new regulations or laws criminalizing the reporting of "false" information about the epidemic - with governments the arbiters of what that constitutes. Some are the usual autocratic suspects: Vladimir Putin's Russia, Iran, Thailand, Zimbabwe. But a surprising number are usually thought of as democracies with freedom of speech: Hungary, South Africa and Bolivia, among others.

One of the most remarkable cases is India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi has imposed a three-week lockdown on his 1.3 billion people, which was necessary — and made an extraordinary effort to muzzle the journalists among them, which was not. The government sought a ruling from India’s Supreme Court requiring all media to publish only official accounts of the pandemic. Though the court did not go quite that far, Modi has bullied most of the media into behaving as if it had.

He has meanwhile reduced the flow of that official information to a trickle. He has yet to hold a coronavirus news conference; neither has the health minister. Instead, select journalists are invited to boilerplate briefings by a low-ranking official. "We've all been quoting the junior bureaucrat," said Raksha Kumar, a freelance journalist. She told the Aspen webinar that only pro-Modi state media were allowed to ask questions at the briefings.

Indian journalists who buck this regime risk extraordinary harassment. Vidya Krishnan, a freelance health-care reporter, produced reports pointing out the government's failure to stockpile protective equipment. Predictably, officials labeled them "fake news," and she was subjected to vicious trolling online. "In my 17, almost 18 years of reporting on health, I've never seen anything like this," Krishnan said in an interview with the Committee to Protect Journalists. "I've been called unpatriotic, I've been called a traitor, people are asking for me to be arrested immediately for spreading fake news."


Krishnan's case is typical of the situation in many countries where harassment is directed at journalists who report on medical shortages or question official figures about the number of infections or deaths. Case zero may have been Chen Qiushi, a Chinese video journalist who traveled to Wuhan in January and posted YouTube videos reporting that hospitals there were overwhelmed with patients and short on supplies.

On Feb. 6, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Chen disappeared after telling his family that he planned a report on a temporary hospital. He has yet to be heard from.

Numerous similar cases have followed. Three Algerian journalists who questioned test results from a state lab are being prosecuted. An Iranian journalist was arrested after criticizing on Twitter his government’s failure to prepare for the pandemic. In Haiti, eight journalists investigating whether a government office was forcing people to crowd together were assaulted by plainsclothe thugs.

Foreign correspondents have not been immune. Egypt expelled a correspondent from the British newspaper the Guardian who questioned official figures on infections; Iraq suspended the license of the Reuters bureau in Baghdad for doing the same. China's expulsion last month of journalists from The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal was nominally not linked to the epidemic, but it is having the effect of greatly reducing independent reporting at a time when the regime of President Xi Jinping is suspected of falsifying statistics.

Simon points out that China is openly pushing the notion that information control is essential to stopping the disease. “There is a grave risk,” he said, that this argument “is taking hold around the world.” If it does, one main reason will be that the world’s leading democracy not only is doing nothing to stop the “covid-19 crackdown,” its president is actively abetting it.

Jackson Diehl is deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post. He is an editorial writer specializing in foreign affairs and writes a biweekly column.