How COVID-19 gives cover to press crackdowns the world over

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this July 1, 2020, file photo, Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai pauses during an interview in Hong Kong. Governments around the world are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to justify crackdowns on press freedom. Lai was arrested in Hong Kong earlier in August 2020 as police enforced a new national security law. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)

Governments around the world are taking advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to justify — or to divert attention from —crackdowns on press freedom.

Media tycoon Jimmy Lai was arrested in Hong Kong earlier in August as police enforced a new national security law. In June, journalist Maria Ressa was convicted of “ cyber libel " in the Philippines. In Egypt, at least 12 journalists have been arrested this year under laws against “spreading misinformation" related to the coronavirus.

In some cases, regimes have moved to curb alleged misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic that doesn’t align with official proclamations about its spread or severity. In others, the pandemic serves as a distraction by directing national attention away from these incidents.

Egypt, for instance, has been jailing young journalists such as Nora Younis, editor-in-chief of the al-Manassa news agency, who according to the International Press Institute was arrested on June 24. In Russia, the AP found at least nine cases against ordinary Russians accused of spreading “untrue information” on social media and via messenger apps, with at least three of them receiving significant fines.

The IPI has been tracking media freedom violations since the pandemic began. Such repression includes arrests and charges, restrictions to access to information, censorship, excessive fake news regulation, and physical attack.

Incomplete figures make it difficult to say whether such crackdowns are on the rise. At least 17 countries, including Hungary, Russia, the Philippines and Vietnam, have enacted new laws ostensibly intended to fight misinformation about the coronavirus, according to an IPI tally. In reality, those measures have actually served as pretexts to fine or jail journalists who are critical of the government, the organization said.

In Hungary, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban passed a coronavirus law that could mean up to five years in prison for false information. Russia can fine people up to $25,000 or imprison them for five years if they're deemed to have spread false information about the virus. Media outlets can be fined up to $127,000, according to the IPI.

The Committee to Protect Journalists has tracked 163 violations of press freedom related to the coronavirus this year as of July 29. The group says its data is not comprehensive. The IPI has tracked 421 violations related to the virus, including arrests, censorship, excessive “fake news" regulation and physical or verbal attacks.