Censored Stories on Covid-19: A Worldwide Media Blackout Threat

The more Covid-19 has spread throughout the world, the more censorship has gained ground. Journalists have had to fight to exercise their profession as they cover one of the largest public health crises in modern history. For authoritarian regimes, preserving their image during this crisis is paramount, and when journalists have questioned the official statistics — particularly death counts — the response has been swift and harsh: threats, arrests, even disappearances of journalists. Forbidden Stories is telling the stories of the journalists — from Asia to South America to Europe — at the heart of this numbers battle.

 

The scene took place on March 22. Around 9:00 p.m, a group of police officers from the Special Actions Force of the Bolivarian National Police (FAES by its Spanish acronym) approached the home of Venezuelan journalist Darvinson Rojas. The officers said that they had been sent after receiving an anonymous call indicating that Rojas’ father had been infected with Covid-19. “I was at first shocked that they didn’t have medical material,” Jesús, the journalist’s father, explained. “I quickly understood that they had come for my son.” 

The journalist’s crime: having conducted his own count of coronavirus infections. 

Forty-eight hours earlier, the Nicolas Maduro regime had announced an official count of 47 coronavirus cases. Darvinson Rojas, an independent journalist, contested these statistics on his Twitter account. Meticulously, the journalist had called regional governors one by one to compile an alternative list, eventually tallying 55 infections — eight more than the official count. 

The day after, Rojas again took to Twitter to report further discrepancies: this time in the state of Miranda, the region the most affected by the virus. He confirmed that there had not been an official count of the sick since March 19, several days earlier. 

The night of March 22, when the police officers asked him to open the door, Jesus Rojas refused. The special forces tried to enter the house without a search warrant. The altercation ended with the 49-year-old receiving a baton blow to the head and falling to the ground. As his father fell to the floor, Darvinson began to live-tweet the scene. “FAES agents say they are coming for me,” he wrote. “They want to detain me.” 

“They’re threatening my neighbors out in the streets,” he wrote in another tweet. 

Photos of Jesus Rojas' wound

When Darvinson came to his father’s aid, the police officers handcuffed both of them, covered their faces with their own shirts and threw them into a police car. Six FAES officials entered the house and began to requisition Darvinson’s journalistic materials: cameras and computers. Unable to find his cellphone, the one from which he had sent his tweets, the officials began to threaten his mother — covering her face with a cloth. They eventually managed to wrestle control of the phone. 

The police officers drove them several kilometers away from the house. The police dragged Darvinson and his father out of the vehicle. His father, hooded, heard them began to interrogate Darvison: 

– “Where did you find the numbers you’re publishing about Covid-19? Where do the Miranda state statistics come from? I’m warning you, the Vice President of the Republic sent us.” 

– “These statistics come from what mayors and governors are saying.” 

– “What you are publishing contradicts the official statistics.” 

Around midnight, the police released the father on a street near his home. At that point, the family still hadn’t heard from Darvison.

“We were very scared,” Jésus told Forbidden Stories via phone. 

The next day, March 23, he began to go to police precincts in search of his son. He was unsuccessful. Taking up his son’s mantle, Jesus published a video on Twitter where he linked his son’s arrest to his journalistic activity.

It wasn’t until the following day, that he uncovered a clue as to his son’s whereabouts. Darvinson was being held at the main FAES precinct in Caricuo, but Jesus was not allowed to enter the building. According to Jesus, a policeman told him he would not be allowed to visit his son because of the video he had published on Twitter the day before and made him delete the video. 

He later learned that his son had been accused of “inciting public unrest.”  

Only the journalist’s mother was allowed to visit Darvinson in detention, and all of their conversations were monitored and recorded by police agents. 

Twelve days after his arrest, Darvinson was conditionally released on the evening of April 2. All of the charges against him have been maintained and he will have to present himself to the authorities every two weeks, at least until the end of the confinement period. He is also not permitted to leave the country. 

In a video published on his father’s Twitter account just after his liberation, Darvinson explained that he could not access his Twitter or Facebook accounts, but that his journalistic work would otherwise not change. “For now I won’t have access to my accounts until I manage to recover my phone,” he concluded in the video. 

As of April 3, Venezuela officially counts 146 contaminations from Covid-19 and five deaths.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, a number of instances of press censorship and threats to journalists have been recorded around the world. 

At the same vicious pace of Covid-19, censorship has gained ground around the world. Index on Censorship, an NGO that defends the freedom of expression, has begun to catalogue attacks against the media since the beginning of the ‘coronavirus crisis.’ Among them: the threat of closing down newspapers, informational sites blocked, printing presses shuttered, foreign correspondents expelled and even unexplained disappearances of journalists. Around the world, anything is fair game to muzzle the press. 

Often, as in the case in Venezuela, the attacks have come when journalists have decided to share data that differs from the official statistics. “The governments that cracked down on journalists before this pandemic are the very same governments that are now trying to control the narrative about what they are doing — or not doing — to counter this terrible disease,” said Rob Mahoney, the Executive Director of CPJ.

The long line to get into a funeral home in Wuhan, on March 26, 2020. (Photo: Caixin)

It’s a pattern that has also played out in China over the past several days, after months of repression of journalists.  

In China, it was harrowing images of seemingly interminable lines extending out from a crematorium in Wuhan just after the city’s confinement was lifted, published by Caixin on March 26, that called the official statistics into question. While the government had announced a death toll of 2,539 people due to the coronavirus, the photos seemed to tell a different story. 

The testimonials that accompanied the photos described similar conditions at the city’s seven other funeral homes: lines of up to five hours to recover the ashes of their loved ones. Another photo showed a truckload of 2,500 funerary urns at one of the city’s eight crematoriums. According to the truck driver, another 2,500 urns had been delivered the night before.

Was the Chinese regime intentionally obfuscating the real number of deaths in Wuhan? 

In China, this is particularly difficult to prove. Covering the pandemic is taboo, and journalists who have done so do it at their own risk. That the Caixin journalists who took the photos and wrote the story risked their freedom — and perhaps even their lives — to publish the information only made the images and testimonials more powerful. CPJ has already published 10 articles or press releases denouncing violations of freedom of the press in China since the public health crisis began. 

“All of the stories that challenge the official narratives [are forbidden stories],” said Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at CPJ. “The suspicion of higher deaths in Wuhan is one of them. I mean a lot of people die every day in Wuhan, and we don’t know if they are related to the coronavirus. It would take an investigative journalist talking to a lot of people to uncover the truth of that.”

Three months have passed since the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in Wuhan, and it remains difficult to establish an exact count of deaths and infections. The most frequently cited source during the crisis — Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore — puts the numbers at 82,464 contaminations and 3,326 deaths in China, as of April 3, 2020. But those numbers reflect the official statistics — numbers that the Chinese state can, and wants, to have published. 

These numbers fail to tell the whole story. Rather they reflect a curated version of the truth that has been approved by the authorities. The journalists across China who have questioned these statistics, and as a result of that challenged the official narrative, have paid a high price. 

This somber picture is highlighted by the case of Chen Qiushi, a freelance journalist who disappeared on February 6 and has not been heard from since.

Qiushi left Pékin, where he had been living, to travel to Wuhan. He wanted to better understand the conditions on the ground. Once there, he began to post videos showing the lack of resources at hospitals in Wuhan. The day of his disappearance, he had told loved ones and confidants that he planned to cover the situation at temporary hospitals that had been constructed in record time. Later that day, Qiushi’s mother published a video from her son’s Twitter account

“Help me find [Chen] Qiushi, and find out what happened,” she says. “Help me please.”

Chen Qiushi’s case is not an isolated incident. Citizen journalists Li Zehua and Fang Bin, who traveled to Wuhan in January to investigate the situation on the ground, also vanished. The last trace of Zehua came in the form of a live video posted on YouTube, entitled: “I’m being followed!!! I’m being followed!!!”

In it, we see the young journalist alone in an apartment, explaining his situation as internet commenters follow live and add messages to the chat. “I don’t want to stay silent or close my eyes,” he says in the video, visibly shaken. The video ends abruptly when two men dressed in black enter the frame.

Fang Bin, another citizen journalist, disappeared in plain sight. He had posted hidden camera videos of hospital staff treating Covid-19 patients. In the days before his disappearance, he had expressed concerns about his safety on his Twitter account. He hasn’t been seen since February 9

Online, many articles disappear moments after being published: an invisible form of censorship that leaves few witnesses. “Chinese journalists are forbidden from giving interviews to other media, in particular foreign media,” a Chinese journalist who asked to remain anonymous told Forbidden Stories. “Many Chinese journalists prefer to stay anonymous. Many others don’t respond to foreign interview requests for fear of losing their jobs.” 

According to the journalist, the conflicting numbers present a communications challenge for the Chinese authorities: “The Chinese government has deliberately hidden the number of deaths in order not to tarnish the country’s ‘image.’”

On February 24, the Minister of Health Iraj Harirchi was photographed at a press conference during which he seemed to demonstrate Covid-19 symptoms. He confirmed that he had the virus the following day.

“Many governments seem to fear the truth about this disease getting out. It paints them in a bad light,” said Rob Mahoney, the executive director of CPJ. “These are governments that always put out the narrative that they are competent and honest with the population, that they are in control. This pandemic undermines all that: they are not in control.” 

In the Middle East, Iran is no exception to the rule. With 50,468 cases and 3,160 deaths from Covid-19, according to the latest official count, Iran is the country with the seventh most cases worldwide, but the scope and timeline of the disease in Iran remain controversial. 

On February 19, independent journalist Mohammad Masaed reported to his 50,000 Twitter followers that two people in Qom, a holy city for Shia Muslims located to the south of Tehran, had died of Covid-19. His reporting confirmed the theory that the virus had already hit the country. For several hours, the Iranian regime remained silent. The Minister of Health finally acknowledged the two deaths in Qom and the presence of Covid-19 in Iran later that day.

“Corona in Qom! 

-> The Minister of Health has finally recognized the death of two patients in Qom. 

-> The Minister of Health has asked Qom inhabitants to not go to work if they present any flu-like symptoms and to go immediately to the hospital. The Health Ministry strongly recommends continual handwashing to prevent the spread.”

The story could have ended there, but Mosaed was shortly after summoned by the Revolutionary Guard Corps (an elite special forces army of the Islamic Republic). He had already been prosecuted by the authorities for tweeting about the Internet blackouts during the November 2019 protests in the country. On parole since December, his case was being closely monitored by the authorities, who considered that he had crossed a “red line” by publishing the unofficial report in advance of the government. 

As Mosaed recounted to Forbidden Stories, the government criticized him for not toeing the line:  

“They said, ‘People should not be scared. You’re not following the [rules]. The enemy wants to shut down our economy. You’re making a lot of noise.’” 

That same day, his social network accounts on Twitter, Telegram and Instagram were deleted — effectively cutting him off from communicating with the rest of the world.

The journalist believes that the Iranian government wants “to be the only media” in the country. Since his arrest, Mosaed has been prevented from doing his job by the ever-present threat of harsh sanctions against him. 

He’s not the only journalist to receive this treatment. His case comes as a number of other journalists have been targeted by Tehran’s attorney general Mohammad Jafar Montazeri, who recently threatened “severe consequences” for those who published “unwarranted” comments online about the coronavirus. “As long as there is no right to investigate, there is no transparency,” Mosaed said. 

Like some other countries in the Middle East, Iran went as far as to ban the printing of all newspapers, the official reasoning being that doing so will limit the spread of the virus. Only online publications have continued to operate. Seeing as the Iranian government already sometimes forced newspapers to change the online version after the printed version had been published, one journalist joked: “Now that there’s no paper version, nobody will even notice the change.”

The first page of the letter sent by the Egyptian State Information Service to the editor-in-chief of The Guardian, on March 17, 2020. (Photo: Ruth Michaelson)

Generally speaking, foreign correspondents tend to enjoy a level of protection that their local colleagues do not. “In a country like Egypt, there is simply no free local press and local journalists censor themselves enormously because they fear prosecution,” says Amr Magdi, a researcher with the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “Foreign journalists, on the other hand, have more space to report more independently.” 

But in the midst of a global health crisis, this unspoken agreement has been shattered. In Egypt, it was a correspondent for The Guardian who paid the price. Ruth Michaelson, who has reported in Egypt since 2014, was kicked out of the country after reporting on a study that questioned the official rate of Covid-19 contaminations in Egypt. The academic paper that she cited, carried out by a team of epidemiologists from the University of Toronto, included testimonies from doctors who believed the infection rates could be significantly higher than the official statistics indicated.

Michaelson’s article, published on March 15, highlighted several inconsistencies in the government’s figures. For example, the number of people who tested positive for Covid-19 upon returning home from a stay in Egypt (also known as “exported cases”) did not match the number of cases recorded at the national level by the authorities. In total, 97 foreigners who have visited Egypt since mid-February have tested positive for the coronavirus upon their return home. By cross-referencing against historical data on population displacement, the epidemiologists estimated that there could be anywhere from 6,000 to 19,310 cases in Egypt — a far cry from the official figure announced that same day: three infections. 

“We published the article on Sunday evening and by Monday afternoon, I was in the office with them yelling at me,” she said.

By threatening Michaelson, the authorities intended to send a message to other journalists investigating Covid-19 in the country. 

In the letter dated March 17 and accessed by Forbidden Stories, authorities accused the journalist of “professional misconducts” (sic) and questioned the validity of the scientific study she cited The three-page letter, addressed to Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, accuses the journalist of not following “the rules of journalism” and ends with a request for an “apology” to be published by the newspaper. 

“We are confident that your esteemed newspaper does not endorse such practices that are inconsistent with your newspaper’s approach and long-standing history,” the official letter concludes. 

“It’s very rare to have a situation where you publish an article and they are so clear [in saying]: ‘What you said right there, this is a problem,’” Michaelson said. “Normally it’s much more complex. You’ll publish something and then start to [have] issues a month or two later.”

Threatened with arrest and deprived of her press accreditation, the German-British journalist managed to flee the country with the help of the German embassy. She flew to Düsseldorf, Germany, on the afternoon of March 27, and from there returned to England. As for her chances of being able to work in Egypt again, Michaelson was pessimistic. She said that she was concerned about potentially endangering her Egyptian sources by going back. 

For local journalists, she said, the situation on the ground is even more challenging. The state regularly arrests reporters for spreading false rumors: a way of spreading fear, she noted.  

This seems to have worked against Mada Masr, Egypt’s only major independent media. Lina Attalah, the editor-in-chief of Mada Masr, said that while reporters on her staff have “not had any problems” with the authorities, it is probably “because we are not trying to tell any stories about the real figures or questioning the government’s figures [on Covid-19].” 

The outlet is sticking to reporting only local stories. 

A screenshot of the Covid-19 world map, updated daily by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. (Photo: Johns Hopkins University)

In each of these cases, journalists shared statistics that differed from those given through official sources, which threatened to disrupt their hold on power. According to Maria Repnikova, an expert in political communication at the University of Georgia in the US, the numbers battles around the world have demonstrated a fundamental tension between the aims of the political establishment and those of journalists: “Numbers are important because by revealing the intensity of the crisis, they can undermine official accountability or showcase officials as ineffective in managing the crisis,” she said. “In authoritarian regimes, numbers are especially sensitive.” 

If the authorities fail, there is a risk that their legitimacy will be called into question and their image tarnished nationally and internationally.  “If they control the number, they control the narrative,” added Rob Mahoney, at CPJ. “It’s about trust between the government and the people. Without this trust, they might lose social cohesion in the country.” The risks of a questioning of power — or even an insurrection — then increase. 

It would, however, be a mistake to limit this problem of controlling the narrative to authoritarian regimes, she added. “Look at the United States: In response to China’s global shipments of medical supplies, the State Department issued a memo about all the assistance the US is providing around the world and has provided historically,” Repnikova said. “We are seeing doctors fired from their jobs for reporting on mismanagement or deficiencies in hospital supplies in the United States.” In authoritarian regimes the control is more noticeable because “the state is more powerful vis-a-vis society.” 

The ramifications of these attacks against the press could last beyond the immediate crisis. Around the world, governments have invoked states of emergency in what they say is an effort to fight against “fake news” and disinformation. 

In the Philippines, for example, a new law imposes legal penalties for the “diffusion of false information concerning the Covid-19 crisis on social media and other platforms.” Breaking the law could lead to a two-month prison sentence and a fine of up to 1 million Philippine pesos ($19,677), in a country whose GDP per capita is under $3,000. Brazil offers another case. In Latin America’s largest country, with 8,066 confirmed cases, President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the public health crisis, calling the virus “a little cold” and accusing journalists of provoking “hysteria.” On March 31, the president signed the “Provisionary Measure 928,” which removes the obligation for public authorities to respond to freedom of information requests. The measure, which has been presented as temporary, will be valid as long as Brazil remains locked in a state of emergency: at least until December 31, 2020.

Viktor Orban at a parliamentary session in Budapest, Hungary, on March 30, 2020. (Photo: Zoltan Mathe / AP)

Even in the heart of Europe, some leaders are using similar rhetoric to tighten their grip on power. In Hungary, for example, President Viktor Orban pushed an emergency law through Congress on March 30. The law grants the government the power to imprison any person who “claim[s] or spread[s] a falsehood or claim[s] or spread[s] a distorted truth in relation to the emergency.” 

Many saw this as a way to target independent journalists in a country where the freedom of the press is already threatened. 

“It essentially gives the government a carte blanche,” said Cameran Ashraf, an assistant professor of New Media and Communications at Central European University in Budapest, which has been the frequent target of attacks from the Orban regime. “Anything that might be related to spreading ‘panic’ or ‘disinformation’ about the coronavirus or something that would in any way hinder the government’s efforts” to combat it could lead to arrest and imprisonment. 

“The idea now that the government can rule by decree — that prison is even discussed in connection with reporting, in connection with journalism — is a really problematic situation and it’s something that the European Union needs to take very seriously,” he added. “Freedom of speech is now more precarious than it ever has been in the heart of Europe since the end of the Second World War.” 

Under Orban, many independent news outlets have been shuttered or bought up by pro-government proxies, who then either fire journalists or force them to publish pre-approved pro-government content. 

 

In the weeks leading up to the law, the government began to take steps to restrict the freedom of the press by making it more difficult for journalists to report on the crisis. 

Starting in late February, when Hungary had just a handful of cases, a government-approved panel was the only source that could publicly comment on the public health crisis, according to Szabolsc Panyi, a journalist with Direkt36. Independent journalists, Panyi said, had the microphone taken out of their hands or were not allowed to ask questions. Eventually, Orban moved the panel online and journalists had to send questions by email. In the first press conference after the emergency law was passed, not a single question submitted by an independent outlet was answered, according to Panyi. 

“This has been going on for a long time, but now that we have a very immediate public health crisis, it’s just more obvious that the government is restricting communication,” Panyi said. 

The law, he said, is intentionally vague on whether independent journalists can be targeted. But its goal is clear. “One of the intentions of this law was [to have] a chilling effect,” he said. “They don’t actually need to use this against journalists — it’s enough if we will be more cautious when dealing with sensitive topics.” 

Screenshot of the TV show "Watan Habarlary" on Altyn Asyr, a state television channel in Turkmenistan, on March 24, 2020. (Photo: Altyn Asyr / YouTube)

In Turkmenistan, authorities are taking things a step further — to the extent that even vocabulary is being controlled. Radio Azatlyk, the Turkmen branch of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and one of the only independent news outlets in the country according to RSF, described unprecedented measures for referring to the illness on state television.

Rather than using the word “coronavirus”, the state has proposed the term “acute respiratory diseases,” and suggests a number of solutions that seem to be drawn from a book of home remedies: “drink tea;” “burn yuzarlik (a desert plant) at home to eliminate germs; and consume “your plate of noodles with some chili peppers.” 

Although Turkmen television stations, which are “strictly controlled by the country’s authorities,” will continue to diffuse the government’s messaging, Radio Azatlyk, which is blocked in the country, is taking a different tack. The station will continue to regularly broadcast the World Health Organization’s recommendations for Covid-19. As they concluded: “Use these recommendations, dear readers!”

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