Coronavirus pandemic as an endurance test for freedom of expression

[ANALYSIS Bulletin No 5] Olga Guțuțui | The Covid-19 pandemic seems to be a test not just for the health care systems, but also for the fundamental human rights and freedoms, particularly for the freedom of expression. As of the onset of the pandemic, governments of many countries tried to limit the freedom of expression, applying restrictive measures in relation to media activity. In this regard, China controlled and keeps controlling the messages that make reference to the pandemic. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), if the Chinese press were free and informed the public accurately and timely, the coronavirus might not be a pandemic and many lives could have been saved[1]. After all, Beijing used the health crisis to strengthen its control over the media outlets, including the interdiction to publish any reports that doubt the way this crisis has been managed. Many countries reacted to this situation, including Germany. Angela Merkel called for China to be as transparent as possible about the origin of the pandemic, such information being vital for the entire world[2].

At the same time, Reporters Without Borders stated that on the crisis background, Hungary passed the so-called ‘coronavirus law’, which was also called the ‘Orwellian law’, which paves the way to the ‘information police state’.

In this case too, the organisation (RSF) fears that the government will take total control over national media[3], thus eliminating freedom of expression and, subsequently, democracy. The Egyptian authorities also have been noted after withdrawing the accreditation of a journalist for The Guardian for reporting the results of a research proving that the governmental data on Covid-19 infection were inaccurate. In the end, the correspondent had to leave the country.

The Philippines also enacted a new law in March, which provides for combating false information about the public health emergency, but it also seriously violates the freedom of expression. The enforcement of this law led to the two-month arrest of two journalists, who were accused of spreading ‘false information about the crisis’. These are just a couple of examples revealing the pressure on the freedom of expression in the time of pandemic. In order to monitor an assess the impact of this unprecedented crisis on the journalist work and, also, to provide recommendations promptly, RSF launched the Tracker 19 tool[4] (image). It is so named in reference not only to Covid-19 but also to article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which provides that:

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers’.

The State of Emergency in the Republic of Moldova versus the Control over the Flow of Information

Similarly to other countries, Moldova was also affected by the pandemic and it is no exception in terms of pressure on the freedom of expression. Once the state of emergency was declared, media outlets had an even harder mission. That is because the authorities tried to impose restrictions on the freedom of expression. The Code of Audiovisual Media Services, in Article 22, provides for the way the public opinion shall be informed during a state of emergency:

‘(1) Official information and press releases of public authorities regarding the state of emergency [...] shall be disseminated by media service providers wholly and as a matter of priority. 

(2) Information envisaged in paragraph (1) shall be broadcast in the linear audiovisual media services swiftly after it is communicated.

(3) Information envisaged in paragraph (1) shall be also broadcast in sign language or with simultaneous subtitles, in order to ensure the access of people with hearing disorders to such information.’

The provisions are as explicit as possible. However, it seems that the authorities desired a total control over the information flow regarding the public health crisis, as there is no other explanation of as to why one week after the state of emergency was declared the Broadcasting Council published on its website an ‘immediately enforceable Decree for all subjects of the Code of Audiovisual Media Services […]’[5]. The document included provisions of the Code, related regulations, but also some specific provisions, particularly point (5), which stipulated that: ‘during the state of emergency hosts/moderators/editors shall relinquish unsanctioned stating and favouring of both own opinions and free formation of arbitrary opinions while reflecting topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic, both domestic and international. The only safe, true, unbiased and balanced sources are the competent public authorities from our country and from abroad (Committee for Emergency Situations of the Republic of Moldova, Government of the Republic of Moldova, Ministry of Health, Labour and Social Protection, World Health Organisation). This obligation is imperative, based on the need to ensure maximum accuracy and total correctness of information, the essential nature of the fact that reports must come from safe, sufficiently fact-checked sources, that approach events in a trustworthy and impartial way’.

I would like to note that the decree was issued a couple of days after several representatives of the health care system started to talk on TV or post on social media information about the poor equipment of front-line doctors and the extent to which authorities are prepared to cope with the pandemic crisis. Obviously this paper raised the discontent of the journalists and media experts, especially because of point (5), which was proclaimed an attack on the freedom of expression. As a result of the criticism the document was repealed and, a couple of days later, the Broadcasting Council passed a decision[6] in this respect during a public meeting, but the aforementioned wording of point (5) was not in it any more. On one hand, the Broadcasting Council states that journalists must present information from the ‘only safe, true, unbiased and balanced sources’ and these are the ‘competent public authorities from our country and from abroad (Committee for Emergency Situations of the Republic of Moldova, Government of the Republic of Moldova, Ministry of Health, Labour and Social Protection, World Health Organisation)’, but on the other hand the Committee for Emergency Situations tripled the time for answering requests for information of public interest during the state of emergency[7]. Consequently, these measures are likely to obstruct the work of the journalists. The People’s Advocate requested the Committee to remove these provisions, making reference to Article 34 of the Constitution of the Republic of Moldova, which provides that: ‘The right of a person to have access to any kind of information of public interest shall not be curtailed’.

The Decision of the Constitutional Court interpreting Article 34(3) of the Constitution is also relevant. It highlighted that ‘the right to information is a precondition for exercising other rights, that is political, economic and social rights; right to privacy protection; right to part of public affairs; right to a fair trial; etc.’[8]. Besides these obstacles imposed by some public authorities, politicians’ attacks towards the media have increased, too. On 23 April 2020, the socialist MP Vlad Batrancea, in his speech[9] delivered during the plenary meeting of the Parliament, accused the journalists of receiving under-the-table salaries worth thousands of Euro, without paying any taxes. He expressed his dissatisfaction with journalists contacting staff of health care facilities when documenting their materials on the Covid-19 pandemic. The MP’s statement was condemned by the journalists’ Crisis Cell[10], established by the Independent Journalism Center, which demanded the politician ‘to make a public apology to media representatives and stop spreading unjustified accusations and denigrating information, refraining himself from any form of expression that incites hate against journalists’.

Instead of a Conclusion

As we can see, the pandemic crisis tests the freedom of expression at global level through the actions of some governments. To this end, the UN experts in the area of freedom of expression recommended the governments to protect the flow and free access to information during the pandemic[1], while RSF believes that we are now facing a ‘decisive decade’. For it not to be disastrous, we need to join efforts and support the journalists, so that they can fulfil their role of fourth estate in a country, defending the public interest. We should all learn our lessons from this challenge. Authorities must become aware that pressure on the freedom of expression and obstruction of access to information does not equal good crisis management. Only information transparency and reliability can make a viable solution and we, the citizens, must strictly abide by the social behaviour rules.

Olga Gututui has been working in the field of the media since 2011 and specialises in media legislation. During 2011–2015 she held the position of Main Consultant for the Parliamentary Committee for Media. Subsequently she became a Member of the Broadcasting Council. Currently Olga is the Programme Director of TV8 television channel. During her career, she has been involved in multiple research projects and assessments of the media situation in the Republic of Moldova. As of 2020 Olga is an expert for LID Moldova in the area of media legislation and policies.

This material was developed by LID Moldova experts under the project The Best Way: Periodic Bulletin funded by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom (FNF). Opinions and conclusions expressed in this material are those of the authors and the experts and do not necessarily reflect the position of the funder.

Elements of text, images, tables or charts may be taken over provided that the source is cited, i.e. LID Moldova, and that the appropriate hyperlink is attached.

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