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COVID-19: Presidents, the Press, and the Pandemic

US President Donald Trump (right) and Mexican counterpart Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador at the White House July 2020. Credit: Toa Dufour/White House

CARACAS, Sep 7 2020 (IPS) - The presidents of the Americas, beyond their ideological differences, seem to agree in questioning the role of journalists and the media in the coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, human rights organizations remind us of the fundamental role of information, especially in times of crisis and uncertainty like the one we are experiencing in this 2020.

NGO Inter-American Dialogue and expert Edison Lanza, current Inter-American Commission on Human Rights rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, prepared the report “COVID-19 and Freedom of Expression in the Americas” which has three thematic areas: The role of journalists and the pressure against them from those in power, access to public information in the current context, and the dynamics of pandemic-related disinformation and misinformation.

Ultimately, the goal is for journalists and the media, as well as healthcare professionals and relevant experts, to be able to speak and report freely about COVID-19, "including coverage that is critical of government responses, without fear or censorship”. And this mandate goes beyond the ideological leanings of those who govern

The report, released on August 31 in Washington, reviews the role of leaders who, in the face of the pandemic, divert the focus towards challenging or discrediting newspersons’ work in their respective countries. This policy has coincidentally been implemented by leaders who, ideologically speaking, are at the antipodes from one another, such as Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, or Daniel Ortega and Alejandro Giammattei in Central America.

The report confirms, on the one hand, the importance of the right to inform freely, even in situations of crisis, as set forth in documents by the Inter-American Human Rights System and, in turn, echoes public concerns expressed, for example, by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

“Undermining rights such as freedom of expression may do incalculable damage to the effort to contain COVID-19 and its pernicious socio-economic side-effects”, remarked Bachelet.

The report outlines this situation: “[…] under the cover of Covid-19 response, some governments in the Americas have taken steps to criminalize free speech […]”

In Mexico, in the context of the pandemic, president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (or AMLO, his acronym) criticized the ethics of both Mexican and international “conventional media” for questioning official data on COVID-19 provided by his administration. This was in May. In April, AMLO had already said that professional journalism did not exist in his country and verbally attacked newspapers Reforma, El Universal, Milenio, and Excélsior.

In theory, ideologically on the other side of the aisle, Bolsonaro also infamously launched a tirade of verbal attacks against journalists and the media in Brazil. Only in the first quarter this year, when the onset of the pandemic was being faced by the South American giant, the president made 32 verbal attacks.

The climate of “continued harassment and abuse” compelled several of Brazil’s main news organizations to stop reporting outside the presidential residence at the end of May, in order to underscore their discontent with Bolsonaro’s public statements.

The report highlights the permanent verbal sparring with the media engaged by President Donald Trump, from Washington, DC, during the harsh weeks of the pandemic that has significantly affected the United States. Between the months of March and May, Trump confronted at least eight journalists during his daily press conferences on COVID-19. The President has responded irately or simply left unanswered questions that are uncomfortable for him and that have been asked in these exchanges with the press at the White House.

Andrés Cañizález

In Nicaragua, meanwhile, president Daniel Ortega accused the media of spreading fake news about his government’s concealment of COVID-19 figures. According to Ortega, there is “disinformative terrorism” in his country on the part of those journalists critical of him.

However, one premier from around the continent who has most clearly voiced his rejection to the exercise of independent journalism during the pandemic has been the president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei. “I would like to put the media in quarantine but I cannot”, he said candidly last March, when he lashed out at what he called negative coverage of his government’s policies in response to the pandemic.

The Inter-American Dialogue report closes with recommendations. As has been the case in other situations of crisis, amidst uncertainty, societies need more and better information.

Regarding the role of authorities, it is stated in the document: “Governments have a duty to ensure that journalism thrives and plays its essential role during the pandemic, as the protection of the media is a protection of the public’s right to information”.

Ultimately, the goal is for journalists and the media, as well as healthcare professionals and relevant experts, to be able to speak and report freely about COVID-19, “including coverage that is critical of government responses, without fear or censorship”.

And this mandate goes beyond the ideological leanings of those who govern.

 
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