Journalism during Covid-19

Democracy is sounding the alarm bells

This week the American institute, Freedom House, is releasing a report that sounds the alarm bells for democracy. The Corona crisis has seen the global decline of democracy in more than 80 countries. But this is not new. The democratic decline is in addition to the fact that for 14 consecutive years, democratic standards and values are breaking down worldwide.

 Press freedom has long been an important pillar of every democracy. After all, free and independent press calls those in power to account and ensures societies are (more) transparent. But even though press freedom was under severe pressure before February 2020, the Corona crisis has put independent journalism in crisis. So-called Corona Emergency Laws often make this possible. The biggest worry concerning the emergency laws is that they are meant as a temporary measure, but in practice often turn out to be permanent.

For example, (repressive) governments used the pandemic to create "fake news" legislation that criminalizes the dissemination of incorrect news. Under these laws, many journalists who brought facts and critical notes about the virus have been arrested or legally prosecuted. Because who decides what "fake news" is? The same government that may have an interest in glossing over the severity of the virus or even in silencing the critics, including medics no less. Some countries, such as Poland and Bulgaria, see an opportunity to rein in independent legal systems and to hit minorities harder. In EU Member State Bulgaria, Roma neighbourhoods are under a more severe lockdown regime than other neighbourhoods; in Serbia, aspiring EU member, migrants were identified as coronavirus carriers. And in Turkey, the LGBTI community was held responsible for the spread of the virus.

In a healthy democracy, independent media can provide citizens with critical and reliable information, and hold those in power accountable. But independent journalism has become weaker. Increasingly repressive actions by governments to silence journalists and critics, increasing (physical) attacks on journalists, increasing amounts of disinformation being disseminated and enormous financial challenges, had undermined independent journalism worldwide even before the Corona crisis. And unfortunately, independent media and journalists were on the front line of victims of repressive emergency laws. The well-known canary in the coal mine is already extremely weakened.

Freedom House's report does not stand alone. Civicus also came out with the 'Civic Space Monitor'. The conclusions are serious: only 3% of people worldwide live in a country with civil liberties, worse than the 4% of last year.

The reports confirm an alarming trend. Democratic values have begun their demise. Are we on the cusp of a new world order? But more importantly, can we turn the tide? Or, as with the climate crisis, have we reached a point of no return? Democratic decline is a vicious circle: the more opposing opinions are crushed, the more difficult it becomes to speak out critically on social developments, and to influence this as a civil society.

Is it just doom and gloom? Fortunately not. There are also sparks of hope. Despite the Corona crisis, the global wave of protests that started in 2019 has continued: in as many as 90 countries demonstrations against various (emergency) measures were held. The need for good journalism is greater than ever because the appetite for independent information is enormous, especially concerning the virus. Solidarity among journalists has also increased. The judiciary raps the legislators and even presidents on the knuckles if they go too far in expanding their power. And doctors and physicians continue to proclaim the truth, despite intense pressure to sugar coat that same truth. What a relief that there are people who defend our civil rights. They are our heroes.

But the general conclusion is that our civil rights are fragile. The breakdown of democracy is in cynical contrast to the 75 years of peace that we in the Netherlands are celebrating this year. That is why I call on the Netherlands and its citizens to continue to remember our open democracy, because it was won at a high price and cost many lives, so let us cherish that democracy and promote it internationally. Global emergency laws must be temporary, media and press freedom must remain top priority, "fake news" laws must be reversed and the ban on demonstrations must be reversed. I therefore call on the Dutch Government to stand and fight for the victory of democracy in Europe and beyond. Now it is still possible.


Ruth Kronenburg
Free Press Unlimited

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