TAIPEI, TAIWAN - Media outlets covering the coronavirus pandemic in Asia are having to circumvent authorities to report about the disease—including the threat of being trolled online, or worse.
News media around a continent with a population of about 3.4 billion people face major barriers in getting out the facts about a national health care crises and the accompanying economic stimulus measures, according to analysts who follow journalism.
Not only is it challenging for reporters to meet their sources in some spots because of lockdowns, but officials frequently curb reporters’ movements and obscure information, as well. Persistent reporters face trolling, the risk of jail, or even disappearance.
Journalists are running up against those barriers partly because authoritarian governments, particularly China, control media content with an iron grip. Other nations, like India and the Philippines, typically allow a certain measure of free speech, but they resent challenges to their tough emergency measures aimed at protecting public health.
Governments in Asia often lack open-records laws that would require turning over details about fragile health care systems and the mechanics of economic stimulus.
“Generally, in a period of crisis, there is an excuse for the authorities not to be fully transparent, because it’s difficult to know what comes from the circumstances and what might come from an ill will from the authorities to communicate information,” said Cedric Alviani, East Asia bureau director with the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.
As a result, analysts say, Asian media cover COVID-19 mostly through easily available numbers, such as new infections and deaths. And those figures can be inaccurate.
China: good news or none
China, the disease outbreak epicenter with about 82,692 coronavirus cases reported to date, allowed open social media expression for a brief period, Alviani said. Chinese authorities have arrested journalists and commentators since then, he said.
Three “citizen journalists” disappeared in China in the month ending March 11, the International Federation of Journalists says.
The country tightly regulates content about almost every topic. Since February, most news reports have lauded the disease-control work and expressed confidence in the subsequent economic recovery.
Asian media outlets outside China either give the Chinese leadership too much credit or too much blame for its role in the global pandemic, Alviani said. COVID-19 has sickened about 2.2 million people and killed 147,000.
Quarantined sources, online trolls
Reporters around Asia are now more beholden than usual to governments for information, as lockdowns make it difficult for other sources to hold events, said James Gomez, regional director at the Bangkok-based think tank Asia Center. It’s not always easy, though, to get a full accounting of complex measures, such as economic stimulus packages, Gomez notes.
Internet “trolls” – some appointed by governments, while others are ideological – disrupt a lot of alternative media messages, he added, emphasizing officials themselves use the term “fake news” to label reports they don’t like.
“From a political point of view, you also have criticism of regimes’ handling of the crisis that’s being dismissed as fake news that’s attributed to its critics, and therefore critics are being held accountable and punished under a “fake news” law,” Gomez said.
Philippine anti-fake news rule
In the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte had fumed even prior to the pandemic about negative media attention, the Congress approved a law on March 24 that criminalizes the spread of false information regarding COVID-19 in social and other media – with the threat of jail time. Metro Manila and Luzon Island are under strict, economically costly lockdowns through April 30.
The National Union of Journalists, a Philippine press group, issued a statement opposing the government’s right to decide “what is true or false.”
Officials in parts of Asia are asking, too, that publicly funded media outlets do “services” even if those organizations are not state-run, Alviani said.
India’s harassment allegations
Journalists covering the coronavirus in India are seeing a new level of harassment, according to the advocacy group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The group quotes veteran Indian health care reporter Vidya Krishnan.
Krishnan's reports highlighting the government’s “failure to stockpile” protective equipment for health workers has prompted officials to allege “fake news,” and it has sparked online harassment, the CPJ said on its website April 8.
“Of course, in authoritarian states there is the tendency to use any crisis to reinforce censorship or reinforce control,” Alviani points out.
Contrast in Japan
In Japan, where the media operate freely, mainstream news outlets are having their say in criticizing Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Numerous mainstream and social media outlets have played up what citizens call a late state of emergency declaration, shortfalls in a plan to send just two face masks to every household, and a video of Abe relaxing at home – while common people stuck at home worry about their incomes.
The public approval rating for Abe's Cabinet fell 5.1% in late March to 40.4%, Japan-based Kyodo News reports.
“You have to say he’s gotten a pretty good pummeling across the board, even in outlets that you’d normally say are fairly positive,” said Jeffrey Kingston, history instructor at Temple University's Japan campus.