Free Press, Fake News, and Repression during Covid-19: Venezuela, Brazil, and Nicaragua
2020欧洲杯体育投注平台May 4, 2020
2020欧洲杯体育投注平台As Covid-19 spreads, governments throughout the world are using the virus as an excuse to crack down on the free press. Latin America is no exception. From Venezuela to Nicaragua to Brazil, journalists and media organizations are increasingly seeing their rights violated. In several countries, journalists have been harassed or jailed for questioning government narratives regarding the virus, or for using social media to expose potential unreported cases.
That this is happening in Latin America is unsurprising. The region is among the most repressive for journalists, with 10 out of the 21 countries ranked in the bottom 80 in terms of press freedom, according to . These governments are using Covid-19 as an excuse to censor and silence the media, often to protect their own image in the face of criticism. In doing so, they are making it harder for citizens and health care systems to prepare for the Covid-19 pandemic, therefore compromising health outcomes. At the same time, without a well-developed press, vulnerable populations in Latin America are falling prey to misinformation about how the coronavirus spreads or how it can be treated.
2020欧洲杯体育投注平台In this commentary, the authors will highlight the ongoing barriers to maintaining freedom of the press in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Brazil, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. They highlight lessons learned in China and outline four recommendations to fight misinformation and build a free press during and after the pandemic in Latin America.
2020欧洲杯体育投注平台Among the most concerning cases is Venezuela, where, for two decades, Chavista governments have dismantled the country’s independent media, stifled key opposition outlets, and used public funds to disseminate state propaganda. Now, as the coronavirus spreads, the Maduro regime is on journalists who have reported on the virus or criticized the regime’s lack of transparency. On March 21, security forces arbitrarily arrested , a Venezuelan freelance journalist who had posted on social media about possible Covid-19 hospitals. Since a nationwide quarantine was imposed, government security forces have arbitrarily detained 18 other journalists, and at least 34 press workers have suffered some form of attack. The regime has excused these arrests by claiming that these individuals were spreading false and dangerous information about the virus.
2020欧洲杯体育投注平台In Nicaragua, as in Venezuela, the Ortega government has infringed upon press freedoms by closing opposition newspapers, blocking these newspapers’ ability to import ink and paper, and arresting and defaming journalists. The Ortega government has the severity of the pandemic, and it has failed to implement social distancing measures. Instead, on March 14, Vice President Rosario Murillo organized a massive, state-funded Covid-19 parade, which over 10,000 people attended. The government maintains a culture of secrecy and continues to use the state-backed media apparatus to control the coronavirus narrative. For example, though the Ministry of Health hosts frequent press conferences, the only media outlets invited are either operated by the state or owned by Ortega’s family.
In Brazil, which ranks 107 out of 180 in the , the Bolsonaro administration has defamed and harassed journalists—especially female journalists—and spread . On March 20, citing Covid-19, Bolsonaro passed a decree that would prevent appeals and suspend deadlines for the government to answer freedom of information requests. While Bolsonaro’s decree is being reviewed by the supreme court, a similar decree was passed in El Salvador, where President Bukele to exempt journalists from a nationwide lockdown.
Without a Free Press, Covid-19 Is an Even Greater Threat
By cracking down on the press, some Latin American governments are making Covid-19 even more dangerous. In Venezuela, for example, doctors, lab workers, and even top health officials have on the real number of cases, or the capacity of the country’s health system. In an effort to control the narrative, the Maduro regime blocked private facilities from processing Covid-19 tests. Moreover, by corroding press freedoms and intimidating journalists, the regime has forced the public to rely on social media, and on apps like WhatsApp, for news. This has fostered a culture in which fake news and disinformation spreads faster than the virus itself. At times, this fake news is propagated directly by the regime. For example, Maduro , on national television, that people could protect themselves by drinking a homemade lemongrass tea that eliminates the virus through an “electrostatic forcefield”.
In Nicaragua, where state media continues to downplay the pandemic, citizens, civil society groups, the church, and private businesses have had to cut through disinformation and social distancing measures. Similarly, in Brazil, though the real number of cases is reported to be up to 12 times higher than official counts, Bolsonaro has governors of inflating official case counts for political ends. This has further polarized the political environment, making it even harder to implement a coordinated effort to slow the virus.
China Is Not the Example to Follow for Latin America
Latin American leaders should consider the lessons learned in China, where experts note that a lack of press freedom the spread of the virus. If the Chinese Communist Party had not censored journalists and punished whistleblowers, millions of people in China would have been informed about the epidemic sooner, and thousands of lives could have been spared. Press freedoms would have also made it easier for the international community to understand and prepare for the epidemic far earlier instead of having to rely on questionable and delayed data from Chinese authorities.
Recommendations to Combat Fake News and Promote Press Freedoms
As Covid-19 spreads and Latin American governments crack down on free press, there are a number of actions that could combat misinformation. In the short term, technology companies and media literacy organizations can work to prevent false information about Covid-19 from spreading to vulnerable populations by:
- Strengthening digital media literacy. Key to building resilience to health misinformation related to the Covid-19 pandemic, are working with journalists and media outlets to use their methodology to identify misinformation, blunt its effects on vulnerable populations, and prevent it from spreading to others.
- Engaging technology developers. Many users of online and social media systems are not aware of how malicious information is spread. Technology developers such as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook should be actively engaged and encouraged to put in place protocols and practices to prevent users from engaging with and spreading disinformation. For example, in an effort to minimize fake news about Covid-19, Facebook recently imposed a on the number of times a message can be forwarded via WhatsApp. Such efforts help prevent fake news from reaching vulnerable populations, particularly the elderly, who are up to more likely to inadvertently disseminate fake news.
2020欧洲杯体育投注平台In the long term, civil society groups, multilateral organizations, and developed democracies should support efforts to rebuild a robust and free press in those countries in Latin America where free press has been corroded, with an emphasis on:
- Promoting independent media and open information environments. In closed and closing spaces like Venezuela and Nicaragua, independent and professional journalism—free from political and commercial influence—should be supported in order to help combat government disinformation. For independent media to flourish in these countries, multilateral and international human rights organizations should explicitly condemn attacks on journalists and media organizations.
- Promoting internet freedom and the use of new technologies. International stakeholders, advanced democracies, and foundations can work directly with civil society, media, democracy, and human rights activists and groups to identify obstacles to internet freedom in Latin America, with an emphasis on issues such as censorship and inadequate internet infrastructure.
Margarita R. Seminario is deputy director and a senior fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Claudia Fernandez is an intern with the CSIS Future of Venezuela Initiative.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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