China, Russia and Iran using pandemic to undermine press freedoms

Pakistan Forward and AFP


Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting on the extent of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in Russia, via teleconference April 13 at a state residence outside Moscow.  [Alexey Druzhinin/ SPUTNIK/AFP]

The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating threats to press freedom around the world, with authoritarian regimes including those of China, Russia and Iran suppressing details of the outbreak, according to activists.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in its annual press freedom rankings released on Sunday (April 19) that the pandemic was "highlighting and amplifying the many crises" already casting a shadow on press freedom.

The outbreak has encouraged some regimes to "take advantage of the fact people are stunned and mobilisation has weakened to impose measures that would be impossible to adopt in normal times", RSF Secretary General Christophe Deloire told AFP on Tuesday (April 21).

RSF accused the regimes of China and Iran -- in 177th and 173rd place respectively out of 180 countries ranked -- of censoring coverage of major coronavirus outbreaks.

Alluding to accusations that Beijing concealed the initial extent of the pandemic, RSF said it "maintains its system of information hyper-control, whose negative effects for the entire world have been seen during the coronavirus public health crisis".

It added that there was a "clear correlation" between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic and a country's ranking in the index.

While Norway topped the index for the fourth year in a row as having the freest press, Finland was again the runner-up.

'Strongmen are consolidating their grip'

The Kremlin, under President Vladimir Putin, is also persevering with "efforts to control the internet, using ever more elaborate methods", the report said, citing a law that would allow the country to disconnect the Russian internet from the rest of the world.

The Russian regime sits in 149th place in the RSF rankings.

"The prospect of a Chinese-style scenario (in Russia) is alarming," RSF said.

A Chinese Foreign Ministry official hit back April 21, claiming RSF "has always been biased against China" and adding that Beijing welcomes reporters from other countries to work in China -- "while adhering to laws and regulations".

"Almost everywhere in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, strongmen are consolidating their grip on news and information," RSF noted.

The RSF warning comes on the back of a study by the European Union (EU) issued on April 1 that found both the Russian and Chinese regimes continue to spread damaging disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, endangering lives worldwide and undermining democratic societies.

At the same time, the disinformation campaigns by both governments provide high praise for their own regimes, even as the countries have performed questionably in countering the pandemic.

For example, Russian propaganda has been extolling Moscow's performance in fighting COVID-19, even though authorities in Russia are frantically locking down their own country against a pandemic that they were late to recognise.

Meanwhile in China, propagandists have been trying to gloss over the reported first appearance of COVID-19 in a Wuhan wet market, suggesting, for instance, that it was brought to Wuhan by US military personnel or that it may have originated in Italy, the EU study said.

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