WANTED: FREEDOM OF PRESS IN PANDEMIC TIMES
Almost 120 instances of aggression were reported against journalists in Mexico between March 12 and May 16, of which 43% were related directly to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report by the organization ‘Article 19’.
The Covid-19 crisis exposed many problems in Mexico: the right to freedom of expression and information, violence against the press and the lack of a technological infrastructure to face severe crises. Together, FNF Mexico and Article 19 developed a report entitled “C.O.V.I.D: Freedom of expression and information during the pandemic in Mexico and Central America” with a series of infographics and videos to promote media literacy against disinformation and to encourage the government to safeguard freedom of the press.
The most dangerous country for journalists
According to Article 19, the most violent states against the press during the period March to May 2020 were Puebla at almost 20% of the total aggressions and Mexico City at 15%. Violence against journalists and reporters is not necessarily physical. Out of the total, 39% were committed against women (30% blocking of information 25% harassment) and 46% against men (45% physical violence and deprivation of freedom). Public officers are responsible for nearly 70% of aggressions. In several regions of Mexico, the government was also accused of downplaying the severity of the pandemic, underreporting figures regarding Covid-19 cases and deaths, and failing to provide timely official guidance to the population. Official information was also lacking in the multiple indigenous languages used in many areas of the country, leading to an explosion of disinformation and negatively affecting these indigenous rural communities.
A populist regime and the lack of access to information
Most of the early news on Covid-19 spread through the internet. The lack of internet policies to provide proper infrastructure in rural communities implied that many people did not get this information in real time. They heavily relied on radio or TV for information. With the government accusing the press of lying, the people in those remote areas would stop trusting the press.
Society has the right to receive objective, plural, and truthful information at all times. In theory, the state is responsible for ensuring that these rights are respected. Nonetheless, populist or authoritarian governments can leverage crises to spread disinformation and implement disproportionate rights restrictions.
Truth and Freedom of the press as pillars of democracy
The ongoing health crisis has had a tremendous global impact on how we access information. In Mexico, it has highlighted structural fractures in terms of inequality of resources, access to information, and rights. What should the government do?
Article 19 and FNF recommend that the government recognize publicly the importance of journalism and the media to strengthen public debate since this is the only way citizens can be informed and thus make better decisions that enhance democracy. In addition, in a dangerous country for journalists, aggressions against journalists and reporters need to be condemned. Well-informed citizens allow democracy to flourish, but that is only possible if an independent and free press can function.
Because of the Corona pandemic, the persecution of journalists and impunity for crimes are losing the focus of attention.