The COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the planet. With almost 3,000,000 confirmed infections and 200,000 deaths, the human cost has been enormous. Hundreds of millions of workers have been laid off, and billions have become subject to lockdown policies. Given that the disease originally spread outward from Wuhan, China, and the manner by which Chinese officials repeatedly lied and sought to cover it up, it was natural that Beijing would become the target of widespread criticism and, in some cases, even vilification. Even after the pandemic began, China continued to allow the operation of unhygienic “wet markets,” which are suspected of being linked to the original COVID-19 outbreak. And the country has repeatedly attempted to spread misinformation and disseminate propaganda that serves to blame others.
In the United States, prominent Republican politicians such as Sen. Lindsey Graham are proposing the use of protectionist trade policies to “punish” China (even though such measures would mostly hurt American consumers). A right-leaning German newspaper, Bild, has blasted China’s authoritarianism, and questioned whether China “should pay for the massive economic damage the coronavirus is inflicting.” The state of Missouri has actually filed suit against China. And a prominent British think tank has called for more such lawsuits.
But outside of the courts and international tribunals where such legal actions may play out in coming years, there is at least one policy lesson that can be implemented immediately: If China allowed more media freedom, the scale of the pandemic might have been reduced, and countless lives might have been saved. Indeed, a new report from Reporters Without Borders (RSF) concludes that if such freedoms existed, the COVID-19 outbreak might never have become a pandemic in the first place.
“If there had been a free press in China, if these whistleblowers hadn’t been silenced, then this could have been prevented,” RSF UK Bureau Director Rebecca Vincent told CNN. “Sometimes, we can talk about press freedom in a theoretical way, but this shows the impact can at times be physical. It can affect all of our health… The consequences [of stifling media freedom] are actually deadly.”
China’s state and privately-owned media are now under the Communist Party’s close control while foreign reporters trying to work in China are encountering more and more obstacles… More than 100 journalists and bloggers are currently detained in conditions that pose a threat to their lives. Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel peace laureate and winner of the RSF Press Freedom Prize, and Yang Tongyan, a dissident blogger, both died in 2017 from cancers that were left untreated while they were detained. Under tougher Internet regulations, members of the public can now be jailed for the comments they leave on news items posted on social media or messaging services, or even just for sharing content.
China’s efforts to suppress press freedom seem to have only increased since the COVID-19 outbreak began, as the Chinese regime sought to save face internationally and enact political damage control in regard to its own population. As an Axios timeline shows, the process of censorship began in December, even before the world knew what COVID-19 was. By the end of the month, two medical officials who’d posted warnings about the new virus were hauled in for questioning. On January 1st, eight more doctors were questioned by the government for speaking out about the virus. One can only imagine the chilling effect this had on other potential whistleblowers.
The first report on COVID-19 in China’s state media did not come until January 9th. And even that seriously downplayed the threat posed by the disease. Yet state media would later parrot the regime’s claim that it “provided the world with precious time.”
Even as infections and deaths continued to climb, information about the virus was censored from Chinese social media platforms, which the state controls. As Hudson Institute scholars have detailed, China expelled three Wall Street Journal reporters from the country after the Journal ran an article headlined, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” And a Chinese businessman, Ren Zhiqiang, simply disappeared from public view after he authored an essay blasting the government for (among other things) its slow response to the outbreak. According to the China Digital Times, an editorially independent outlet covering Chinese affairs, the regime was “working hard to control the narrative: censoring online information and relevant ‘rumors,’ penalizing those who spread ‘false information without verification’ (even if they are frontline doctors), while broadcasting propaganda on diligent relief and containment efforts, optimistic outlooks from renowned experts, and fake images of nonexistent new hospitals for coronavirus patients.”
All of this had deadly consequences. A March study conducted at the University of Southampton concluded that if China had acted three weeks earlier, nearly 95 percent of global COVID-19 cases might have been prevented. Armed with this knowledge, countries around the world could have taken preventative measures earlier and more effectively to stop the disease.
China is especially intolerant of independent journalism. But the sad truth is that global press freedom is on the decline in many places. Legal restrictions on the press also have mounted in the UK. And in Brazil, authoritarian populist president Jair Bolsonaro has launched prosecutions against critical journalists such as the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald. In the United States, laws provide robust protections for journalists. But President Donald Trump has mused about weakening them; and uses the term “ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE” to describe “fake news”—a category he defines broadly to include not only outright lies but also mainstream media outlets that are merely torqued in a liberal manner. Even the Obama administration spied on journalists, and named a Fox News reporter as an unindicted co-conspirator in a criminal proceeding.
Freedom of the press is a fundamental human right and a key pillar of democracy. And even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, it was clear that the global movement away from press freedom must be reversed. But the urgency of the task has now become more apparent. It’s clear that the consequences of censorship can be measured not only in lost liberty and political accountability, but also lost lives and economic devastation.
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