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Journalists Arrested Around the World For Covid Dissent
By Radical Media Columnist Rav Arora
In discussing the problem of domestic censorship of ideas during Covid-19, mainstream pundits blithely dismiss any concerns and justify cracking down on dissident voices on the basis of “dangerous misinformation.” Other times, mainstream media outlets remain silent.
Recently revealed instances of successful or attempted censorship include the Stanford Virality Project (from the Twitter Files) instructing Twitter to censor “true stories [of vaccine side effects] that could fuel hesitancy”
And Rob Flaherty, the White House’s Direct of Digital Strategy, pressuring Meta to censor Covid misinformation on the private messaging app Whatsapp.
Here’s part of one email Flaherty writes to Meta executives, in which he expresses his concern for actions taken to censor private content that may exacerbate American vaccine skepticism:
“I care mostly about what actions and changes you’re making to ensure you’re not making our country’s vaccine hesitancy problem worse,” he wrote. “I still don’t have a good, empirical answer on how effective you’ve been at reducing the spread of vaccine-skeptical content and misinformation to vaccine fence sitters.”
To those of us maintaining the principles of free speech and open discourse, such censorious attempts by powerful elites are outrageous. They threaten the bedrock of democracy. Yet, for others these actions are not only benign, but crucial to save lives and protect the public by preventing the spread of “dangerous” ideas - such as the fact that mRNA vaccines are the most harmful widely administered pharmaceutical product in history.
For those supporters of the state cracking down on Covid misinformation, perhaps real-world examples of governments going one step forward in punishing journalists may stand a chance in illustrating the slippery slope of state censorship.
In the socialist dystopia of Venezuela – where 90% of citizens live below the poverty line – the government has arrested several journalists reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic.
The example above is of freelance journalist Darvinson Rojas, who was arrested by special forces for “covering recent numbers of confirmed coronavirus cases.” Later, he was charged with “advocacy of hatred” and “instigation to commit crimes”
“They acted violently, tied my hands with my shoelaces and covered my face with the T-shirt I was wearing,” Rojas told Al Jazeera.
Natalie Southwick, the South and Central America programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, says the COVID-19 crisis has allowed “more excuses for the [Venezuelan] government to repress and censor critical media, in what was already one of the most challenging countries for the press in Latin America.”
A number of Asian countries have also witnessed a rise in state attacks on press freedom. Unsurprisingly, China has been one of the leading culprits. Independent journalist Zhang Zhan was sentenced to 4 years in prison for her reporting on “crowded hospitals and residents worrying about their incomes,” among other seemingly taboo events during the pandemic. Her harsh critiques of the government censoring whistleblowers and enacting draconian lockdowns landed her on the CCP’s investigative radar.
In her last YouTube video before being arrested for allegedly spreading false information, she says, “The government’s way of managing this city has just been intimidation and threats…This is truly the tragedy of this country.”
A reporter in Cambodia faced a similar fate for quoting a prime minister’s comment about Covid-19 in the early days of the pandemic. As journalist Sovann Rithy wrote in a Facebook post, PM Hun Sen said: “If motorbike-taxi drivers go bankrupt, sell your motorbikes for spending money. The government does not have the ability to help.”
He was arrested on the charge of “incitement to cause chaos and harm social security” under article 495 of the criminal code, police chief Sar Theth said.
As the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre wrote in a public statement:
“Imprisoning a journalist for quoting a statement by the prime minister word for word is more than absurd. The Covid-19 crisis must not be used as pretext for getting rid of journalists who do not blindly toe the government line.”
Self-identifying American and Canadian liberals who support greater censorship efforts on social media ought to reflect on global examples of state authoritarianism and grapple with the dangerous consequences of letting government power go unchecked.
The road to tyranny is a short one — White House officials pressuring social media companies to censor dissidents or the IRS showing up at independent journalists’ homes on the day they testify in Congress is not as far from the state arresting journalists for quoting the country’s leader as one may imagine.
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