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Coronavirus outbreak amplifying threats to press freedom, media watchdog finds

Moscow rally against censorship (Niklem/WikiCommons)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The coronavirus pandemic is expanding threats to media freedom around the world, where authoritarian regimes such as China and Iran are stifling details of the outbreak, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says in its annual press freedom rankings.

The outbreak is “highlighting and amplifying the many crises” already casting a shadow on press freedom, the Paris-based RSF said on April 21, adding that the pandemic had encouraged some regimes to “take advantage of the fact that people are stunned” to impose measures “that would be impossible to adopt in normal times.”

Turkmenistan and North Korea were placed at the bottom of the list of 180 countries. Norway topped the index for the fourth year in a row, and Finland was again the runner-up.

The report, titled Entering A Decisive Decade For Journalism, Exacerbated By Coronavirus, said China and Iran — in 177th and 173rd place, respectively — were censoring major coronavirus outbreaks.

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The communist regime in Beijing “maintains its system of information hyper-control, whose negative effects for the entire world have been seen during the coronavirus public health crisis,” it said, pointing to accusations that China concealed the initial extent of the outbreak.

Russia, in 149th place, is continuing “efforts to control the Internet, using ever more elaborate methods,” the report said, pointing to legislation that would allow the country to disconnect the Russian Internet from the rest of the world.

RSF said “the closure of the national Internet” is already a reality in Turkmenistan, where the few users are allowed to view only a highly censored version of the Internet, often in public outlets where their identity is checked.

It also pointed to media censorship in EU member Hungary, where right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s government has passed a special law on false information that was a “completely disproportionate and coercive measure.”

“Almost everywhere in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, strongmen are consolidating their grip on news and information,” RSF said.

Published annually by RSF since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index analyzes factors such as media independence, self-censorship, the legal framework, and transparency based on a questionnaire filled out by experts.