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Pandemic causes ‘dramatic deterioration in access to information’, Reporters without Borders says

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By Luke Hurst
Governments have used the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on the freedom of the press, RSF has said
Governments have used the pandemic as a pretext to crack down on the freedom of the press, RSF has said   -   Copyright  Reporters sans Frontiers

There has been a “dramatic deterioration” in access to information and reliable news during the coronavirus pandemic, which has been used as a pretext to prevent journalists from doing their jobs in some countries.

That’s according to Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF), which has warned that journalism, “the main vaccine against disinformation”, is completely or partially blocked in nearly three quarters of the world.

In its annual World Press Freedom Index, in which it ranks 180 countries based on the level of freedom available to journalists, it found that journalism is “totally blocked or seriously impeded” in 73 countries and “constrained” in 59 others.

The top 10 best countries for freedom of the press is, once again, dominated by European nations, with the top four made up of Scandinavian countries.

The 10 worst are made up of countries in Asia and Africa, with North Korea and Eritrea at the bottom of the list.

RSF says the coronavirus pandemic has been “used as grounds to block journalists’ access to information sources and reporting in the field.”

For example it cites Iran, in 174th place, as a country that has stepped up trials against journalists to stop them from investigating the true toll of COVID-19 there.

Egypt, in 166th place, banned the publication of any COVID-19 statistics that didn’t come from the ministry of health, while Zimbabwe arrested a reporter who exposed the overbilling practices of a medical equipment supply company.

Germany fell two places to 13th, and lost its “good” classification, after dozens of journalists there were attacked by extremists and conspiracy theorists during protests against coronavirus restrictions.

In Europe, several countries have used the pandemic to crack down on journalists’ work. In 93rd-ranked Serbia for example, Ana Lalić was arrested at her home late at night after covering a hospital’s battle with COVID, due to a decree putting a government unit in charge of disseminating all information about the virus.

And in Kosovo (78th), KoSSev news website editor Tatjana Lazarević was arrested arbitrarily in the street while covering the pandemic’s impact.

Hungary was also singled out, in 92nd place, as a country that has used the pandemic to further erode freedom of the press.

There is a ban on reporting in hospitals, and the government of Victor Orban has accused journalists of spreading “fake news” as they try to report what is happening with the pandemic in the country.

The US was down just one place, despite Donald Trump’s final year in the White House seeing a record number of assaults against journalists and arrests of journalists.

“Journalism is the best vaccine against disinformation,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said.

“Unfortunately, its production and distribution are too often blocked by political, economic, technological and, sometimes, even cultural factors. In response to the virality of disinformation across borders, on digital platforms and via social media, journalism provides the most effective means of ensuring that public debate is based on a diverse range of established facts.”

Belarus, which the organisation said in December was the most dangerous country in Europe for journalists, fell five places to 158th.

Journalists have been subjected to an unprecedented crackdown there as they attempted to report on huge protests against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

This left the Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) region at second-to-last in the regional rankings.