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

May 3, 2020 by

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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.”

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

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