Top Stories

Press Censorship Has Always Hurt Democracy. In the Age of COVID-19, It’s Also Killing People

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.”

When it comes to press freedom, China ranks an abysmal 177th out of 180 countries ranked by RSF on its global index. The strictures imposed by Beijing are summarized as follows:

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.


Brad Polumbo (@Brad_Polumbo) is deputy opinion editor at the Washington Examiner, a conservative political magazine based in Washington, D.C.


  1. Yes, of course outright lies and repression of press freedom is wrong. But “mainstream media outlets merely [sic] torqued in a liberal manner” is propaganda, and also wrong.

    So many want to control facts. If only news was just the facts, and could be trusted … but if they ever existed, those days seem to be over.

  2. I think Nassim Taleb’s critique of the financial sector, bears thinking about in relation to how the Free Press has devolved and lost it’s objectivity, in these troubled times. At the heart of the problem is the social segregation of the Left and Liberals, from Conservatives. The Washington Examiner is a rare example of a conservative viewpoint, in a largely Left and Liberal media landscape.

    With the benign interactions of viewpoint diversity effectively silenced, it is easy to see how the interconnectivity of the modern age has led to the inability of the Free Press to resist the baleful influence of commercial contagion. Now whether one trades in China, will determine journalistic content, even from the investigative outset. Content is driven by click bait, and even those rare Press Institutions which might have the resources to investigate stories, like the NYT, ‘the paper of record’, have abandoned journalistic objectivity in the pursuit of political partisanship and becoming a transnational Global Brand reflecting the views of the ‘woke’.

    What we are learning is Small is invariably better, more moral and possessed of greater integrity- whether it’s governments, commercial interests, banks or media structures. This is because integrity and ethical behaviour have always been the realm of the individual, rather than the collective. The true crisis, for media and for the world, is the understanding that reciprocity is driven by the personal, and the moral and the good cannot long endure, in a world which rewards economies of scale, and the alignment of government with commercial interests.

    Because underneath it all, we will always find that the tail doesn’t wag the dog. Unfortunately power now resides in the Administrative State, rather than whatever transitory and temporal public figures happens to occupy public office- just as editorial power has been ceded to the seedy world of marketing a woke vision which sells virtue as a commodity. This circular logic of relying on government for change which is always sold to the highest bidder, will only ever lead to greater disillusionment for the young, and an ever more drastic and aggressively pursued desire to see the whole system burn. It’s a shame, we had a good run…

  3. … the inability of the Free Press to resist the baleful influence of commercial contagion.

    If you were to examine closely the work of the press in Europe and North America over the past two centuries, I believe you will find that there have never been more than a few people at any time who seriously thought that the journalists of their day were devoted to objectivity.

    The Free Press has only ever sought freedom from government obstruction. Never, in the West, has the Free Press been free of “the baleful influence of commercial contagion.” On the contrary, commercial profit is, and always has been, its very reason for existence.

  4. This article is a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black. Yes, China is an authoritarian state, but many Western states are becoming authoritarian too. Yes, WHO is a compromised organization. While its director general, the pro-Beijing Margaret Chan filled its ranks with like-minded staff. The present DG, Tedros Ghebreyesus, is the first to never work as a medical doctor and appears to be a tool for China. WHO first allayed fears, then ratcheted them up to hysteria level. Outrage and hysteria sells. So now the media holds WHO’s word as gospel. I worked in media for a long while. Some things to get across: investigative journalism is not what it once was since budgets are less, and very few health reporters boast medical degrees. You can talk about China’s fake news and propaganda, but the West has that too. Just one example:

  5. 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.

    What a weird sentence. First, it kind of admits there have been outright lies. I could give some examples: the non-existent pee tape, the supposed Russian collusion in the election, the “racist” Covington students, the Jussie Smollet “hate crime”, the Brett Kavanuagh “rape”. These are whoppers, and the media never gives itself a hard time over these. It still expects trust and respect in return. And, really, all Trump does is criticize the media. He doesn’t jail or kill journalists. Obama was way more of a dick to journalists.

  6. The problem with global organizations both private and public wanting more and more power is that the views that they promote are pretty uniform globalist ones. There is no counterweight against these organizations as they are all pushing in the same direction.

    These organizations are convinced that they know the answer to everything. Even those who say there is no such thing as truth are convinced that they themselves paradoxically know what truth is. There is no intellectual humility which is why I will always side against censorship because it seeks to enforce a very particular all embracing view of the world.

    A view of the world I might add that is unique arguably to 2015-2020 and to a very specific part of the world . Just look at the example of how Obama opposed gay marriage originally and now such a view would have a man’s public career ruined. If you oppose x now you are a monster even though if you opposed x even up to a few years ago you were not.

    Organizations and individuals in general with these views think that their values will hold and still be in place in another x years because they see themselves as being on the right side of history.

    The criteria for right think is set by reasonably well off liberals who think that those who disagree with them only do so because they are “uneducated”. They can’t possibly imagine someone thinking differently than they do and having a different view of the world based on a different value system .

  7. I don’t understand how you can discuss Chinese censorship in the age of COVID-19 without discussing Youtube censoring Dr. Erickson and The Atlantic’s appeal for more of the same:

    The mainstream “free” press in the US has been campaigning against free speech since Trump was elected with canards like “hate speech,” hoaxes about “Russia hacking the election,” and consistently taking as granted the Chinese idea that censorship to promote right-think that brings harmony to society is not only a moral good but a moral imperative. Lately they are pulling out all the stops, not letting the crisis go to waste.

    Pull out the Chinese straw man while giving these guys a pass, and you’re basically against free speech. Defending free speech means defending people who spread views you find horrible. As Chomsky says, Göbbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked.

    Pull out the Chinese straw man, contemporized around the Wuhan Coronavirus, without mentioning the recent Atlantic article on the same topic supporting Chinese-style Communism in America, and I begin to think you’re being tricky.

  8. Good point. Of course it is perfectly legitimate to focus on criticizing China’s hostile attitude to freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as the article does. But given the recent actions taken by Youtube and the other developments you mentioned, our main problems with censorship today are much closer to home, they are increasing, and they need to be brought into focus urgently.

    And as the developments of the last few years have shown, what looks like a satirical exaggeration today could be a step closer to reality tomorrow…

    SAN BRUNO, CA—In light of the ongoing fight to halt the spread of dangerous or yucky opinions, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki has announced new changes to Google’s video-sharing platform. Starting next week, any video that does not begin with the glorious strains of China’s uplifting national anthem will be immediately deleted from the platform.
    “China is leading the world in not being evil,” said Wojcicki in an interview as she showed off her new Chinese flag ankle tattoo. “They are, like, really good at human rights, and they have such a handsome president. It’s only right that we acknowledge the great and glorious Red Dragon of the East in each and every video on our platform!”
    YouTube creators will now be required to personally sing the Chinese Anthem while facing east before each and every video. They will also be required to hang a picture of President Xi in the background. In a press conference in which she wore her new CEO uniform featuring a Chinese military jacket covered with medals, Wojcicki insisted that this is a “modest, reasonable, and totally not evil” step for YouTube to take. (…)

  9. I find it shocking and appalling, yet at the same time I am not shocked. Stephen, the first martyr who was killed (36 AD) for believing and vocalizing his belief in Jesus as the Son of God and Savior was removed / murdered - stoned to death, because the Jewish religious leaders could not handle an opposing belief and viewpoint counter to their own. I hear and read of many people who do not agree what I believe, but I do not want to silence them; actually I welcome the healthy respectful debate. We must not only call out todays attacks on free speech, but also ask and answer the question as to what their real fear and motives are. Russian Proverb (?) “He who tells the truth must have the fastest horse.” No matter the opposition or threat, the truth must always be spoken without compromise or fear of retribution.

  10. The fact that you are a journalist does not mean that you are an angel in the service of God.

    You have to accept the fact, that when Donald Trump uses the term ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE or Obama administration named a reporter as a co-conspirator in a criminal proceeding, that may be true sometimes.

    Freedom of speech works in both directions.

  11. Every time I come across someone arguing that American journalism has only recently fallen from grace and turned away from a golden tradition of objective truth-seeking, I try to encourage them to seek out biographies and autobiographies of some of our more storied journalists. Twain would be one. H.L. Mencken another.

    High on everyone’s list should be Ben Hecht’s autobiography A Child of the Century (the careful reader will be shocked), and Jimmy Breslin’s glorious biography of Damon Runyon, Damon Runyon: A Life. (That same reader will be shocked again.)

    Anyone who invests the time and energy to actually look into the historical record of American journalism - instead of daydreaming about lost mythological ages - will be immensely rewarded.

  12. If China allowed more media freedom, the scale of the pandemic might have been reduced, and countless lives might have been saved.

    You mean if China weren’t a murderous dictatorship? If China didn’t suck?

    There are a lot of ifs that could be thrown around, including if we hadn’t crawled into economic bed with these third world dogs we wouldn’t be covered in fleas. However, this article seems to want to detach “press freedom” from the larger picture, which IMO is pretty lame.

  13. Six plus weeks of what? Of being fed Chinese misinformation that led the world to believe that little action was necessary?

    Does the six weeks begin when Trump closed the border to China, then? And extend through the CDC’s contamination of its own tests due to not following its own basic lab procedures?

  14. I don’t like the fact that the mainstream media puts politics ahead of truth. But it is part and parcel of a free society. What worries me is access to news. The world is different today. Our access to information is largely controlled by a few large companies: Google, Facebook and Twitter. All of those companies punish divergent opinions. I urge everyone to try a simple experiment. Type Trump into the Google search line and hit news. See how many times CNN, The Guardian, and Politico come up relative to Fox, despite the fact that Fox is much larger and reaches far more people than any of the other organizations. Note how long it takes to find a reference to any conservative media outlet.

    Conservatives, myself included, generally abhor government regulation. However, Google Facebook and Twitter are monopolies with nearly absolute control over information. I think we need to ask the question as to whether they should be treated as private companies, with the right to censor what they wish, or as utilities that have a responsibility to be free and fair

Continue the discussion in Quillette Circle

38 more replies


Comments have moved to our forum