5th May 2020
By Hannah Storm

As press freedom suffers with Covid-19, journalists must look behind the masks of power

By Éva Bognár

“A surgical mask with two thin elastic straps will likely become a symbol of the current crisis” – write the authors of a cross-border story on health management crisis in the Visegrad countries on Vsquare.org.

If masks are a symbol of the crisis, looking behind the mask has come to symbolize journalists’ resistance to the abuse of power and the sheer incompetence of those in decision making positions. A “journalistic and ethical imperative”, the tackling of misinformation during Covid-19, was the subject of John Crowley’s piece here a few weeks ago. This time, another journalistic and ethical principle is in focus: that of holding the powerful accountable in times of a pandemic.

While it is probably obvious why providing truthful and useful information in times of a health crisis is critical, the watchdog role of journalism may seem secondary. I argue that watchdog journalism is just what we need. While we are preoccupied with life under quarantine and the challenges of multiple levels of insecurity, some governments use Covid-19 to advance their agenda by legitimizing illegitimate ways of governance.

Among those, the Hungarian government did not miss the opportunity to strengthen its grip on power and eliminate potential sources of opposition. Since March 31st, the government has been ruling by decree, with no time limit to its new powers. The set of laws (passed by the ruling parties in parliament) include restrictions on press freedom in the name of “preventing the pandemic” or “averting the consequences of the pandemic”.

The justification for the emergency rule (the government’s fight against the pandemic) quickly wore thin when a set of new laws introduced included “emergencies” such as the classification for ten years of documents related to the Budapest-Belgrade railway line to be built by China; making people`s biological sex at birth unchangeable on official documents; donation of two expensive villas to a foundation close to the government. This draws attention to the heightened importance of the watchdog role of journalists, especially at time of crisis when their job becomes crucial, be that in taking note, contextualizing and making the public aware of wrongdoings related or unrelated to the health crisis, while keeping those in power in check.

As far as Covid-19 is concerned, there are many ways in which this kind of reporting makes an essential contribution to the public discourse. This includes covering the crisis in a responsible way: diving into systemic problems, unveiling the connections between inequalities, corruption, and States that fail to properly manage health and other social crises, and in so doing risk people’s lives; reporting on the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives, paying particular attention to the most vulnerable whose voices would not be heard otherwise (people living in poverty, people experiencing domestic violence, for example). Another is by covering stories that deserve attention when no one is watching: investigating, documenting and raising awareness to cases of wrongdoing. Those in power need to know that someone is still watching.

This difficult job of holding those in power accountable is crucial, and even more challenging under the current circumstances. The rapidly unfolding crisis deepens existing crises of journalism:

  1. The state of media freedom has been declining globally due mostly to political interference. Now some governments quickly jumped to the occasion and used the cloak of Covid-19 to restrict press freedom. The violations tracked by the International Press Institute range from restrictions on access to information to physical attacks and charges against journalists. In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orban had been widely criticised for years for silencing critical voices and for poisoning the public discourse with government propaganda which earned Hungary a slide to the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index ranking among EU countries. Access to information for journalists has been restricted before, now it is near impossible to get a response from government officials for journalists who do not work for pro-government media, regardless of whether the questions concern Covid-19 or not. Newly introduced measures, such as the modification of Paragraph 337 of the criminal code to include a potential five-year prison sentence for spreading “false facts”, or for spreading true facts in a “distorted way”, further undermine the work of journalists.
  2. This is happening at a time when the business model of journalism is failing. Media organisations already in a fragile financial state are hit by an economic crisis that may just bring many to their knees: experts estimate an unprecedented 25 percent average revenue decrease for Hungarian media companies for 2020..We see layoffs, pay cuts and closures in the sector already.
  3. Journalists are working under increasingly precarious conditions. These uncertain conditions with the additional pressure from living and working in quarantine present extraordinary difficulties to conducting in-depth quality journalism.
  4. Conducting investigative work is extremely hard when most of the usual channels of information (in-person meetings, visits of sites etc.) are impossible as movement is restricted, and there is even less access to officials and sources to raise questions.
  5. Add to these the lack of interest in non-corona related news and the exceedingly short attention span of the audience, and we have the highly adverse backdrop for watchdog journalism.

Fortunately, some journalists defy these circumstances and provide us with extremely valuable high-quality accountable journalism in Hungary. We have seen great reporting on how the crisis affects Hungarian Roma communities and people living in poverty, on the corruption surrounding the state’s purchasing of masks and other protective gear, on how the virus spread in a hospital in Budapest, the personal tragedies following the government`s decision to “free up” hospital beds by sending hospitalized people home, and on what prime minister Orban’s favorite billionaire, Lorinc Meszaros has been up to during the health crisis, just to mention a few.

In some, fortunate cases there is a direct impact of journalism in improved policies, prosecuted officials etc. Other times impact is frustratingly hard to see. But the immediate, all-encompassing nature of the pandemic will slowly give way to measured discussions on where we as societies are going from here. We will have to take stock of where we stand and what our decision makers and our governments did while citizens were pre-occupied trying to stay healthy and sane. Watchdog journalists’ work will be essential in our long road to recovery.

Author Photo

Éva Bognár is Senior Program Officer and Researcher at the Center for Media, Data and Society of Central European University in Budapest. Her background is in sociology.

Referenced articles:

Borsodba előbb érkezett meg az éhezés, mint a koronavírus. Balazs Cseke, Index.hu 2020.04.03 https://index.hu/belfold/2020/04/03/koronavirus_szegenyseg_borsod_falvak_szendro_tornanadaska_tomor_kozmunka_tavoktatas_ehezes/

Ezt csinálta Mészáros Lőrinc a koronavírus idején – mérlegen a felcsúti milliárdos. Marton Veg, Mfor. Hu 2020. 04.23 https://mfor.hu/cikkek/makro/ezt-csinalta-meszaros-lorinc-a-koronavirus-idejen–merlegen-a-felcsuti-milliardos.html

Hungarian ministerial adviser searched for coronavirus masks. He found them at a company where his father is a senior manager. Blanka Zoldi, Direkt36 2020.04.07. https://www.direkt36.hu/en/keletre-kuldtek-portyazni-a-miniszteriumi-tanacsadot-vegul-olyan-cegnel-talalt-maszkokat-ahol-az-apja-az-egyik-vezeto/

Kitört a járvány a Szent Imre-kórházban is. Magyar Hang 2020. 04.27. https://magyarhang.org/belfold/2020/04/25/kitort-a-jarvany-a-szent-imre-korhazban-is/

Living on margins, Hungary’s Roma feel especially exposed to coronavirus, Marton Dunai, Reuters, 2020. 04.07.


Lockdown: The disappearing face masks. Eszter Katus, Szilvia Zsilák, Gabriella Horn (Atlatszo.hu); Julia Dauksza, Konrad Szczygieł (Fundacja Reporterów); Daniel Antoni (Investigatívne centrum Jána Kuciaka); Hana Čápová, Eva Kubániová (investigace.cz) Vsquare.org 2020. 03. 29. https://vsquare.org/lockdown-the-disappearing-face-mask/

Szolidaritás a válságban (Solidarity in the crisis) series. Solidarity Actiongroup, Merce.hu for example: Nők elleni erőszak a járvány idején – miért fokozódik és hogyan lehet tenni ellene? 2020.04.11. https://merce.hu/2020/04/11/nok-elleni-eroszak-a-jarvany-idejen-miert-fokozodik-es-hogyan-lehet-tenni-ellene/

Tömegével küldik haza az ápolásra és ellátásra szoruló embereket a kórházakból. ATV Magyarország, Heti Napló Sváby Andrással. 2020. 04.20. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ql14thsdsac&list=PLLbVIN5-thkpgFo7X3BV6HSF-6JZLhtbe&index=8&t=0s

Éva Bognár is Senior Program Officer and Researcher at the Center for Media, Data and Society of Central European University in Budapest. Her background is in sociology.