Why does coronavirus also attack democracy’s airways?

New visualisation of the Covid-19 virus, March 12, 2020

By Kjersti Løken Stavrum

At the very beginning of this year, democracy was shown to be on the decline. This conclusion is based on the figures in the Economist’s annual democracy index https://www.economist.com/graphic-detail/2020/01/22/global-democracy-has-another-bad-year.

Since, matters have got worse.

Freedom of expression and press freedom are the lungs of democracy. Only if we can freely receive and share information can we truly say that “democracy” exists. Put in simple terms, freedom of expression provides democracy with the required oxygen. Coronavirus not only attacks the lungs of human bodies; it has proven equally insidious for democracy.

At the end of March, the organisation Reporters Without Borders therefore launched #Tracker19 to monitor the impact of the pandemic on journalism globally. The number 19 refers not only to Covid-19, but also to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It is worth recalling that all the UN’s member states have endorsed this declaration, and hence also Article 19 on the freedom of expression. However, as is well-known, practice does not always reflect theory, and the reports of attacks on journalists being filed with #Tracker19 are multiplying, from India and the Ivory Coast to Iraq, Myanmar, Brazil and Turkey, to name a few.

The Council of Europe saw the writing on the wall: “Press freedom must not be undermined by measures to counter disinformation about Covid-19,” the Council of Europe’s outspoken Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović wrote a few days after the launch of #Tracker19.

“Regrettably, some governments are using this imperative as a pretext to introduce disproportionate restrictions to press freedom. This includes combating disinformation that may cause panic and social unrest; this is a counterproductive approach that must stop. Particularly in times of crisis, we need to protect our precious liberties and rights,” Dunja Mijatović reiterated – not that there is any reason to believe that his words will leave much of an impression on those most in need of them.

Respiratory difficulties

In their book “How democracies die”, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain that coups against democracies are no longer perpetrated by generals and tanks. These days, “coups” are much quieter and make fewer waves, with democracies breathing their last at the hands of presidents and prime ministers who opt to subvert the very system that empowered them.

Levitsky and Ziblatt outline a pattern where the decline of democracy begins at the ballot boxes. Next, lawmakers approve the proposed bills and the judiciary accepts these laws, compromising democracy.

Hungary is a case in point. On 31 March, the Washington Post wrote “Corona kills its first democracy”. After more than a decade with Victor Orbán at the helm, Hungary was already “immunocompromised”. Orbán has proven himself a mastermind at finding the means of eroding democracy within democracy itself; exploiting the fear of the coronavirus, he has now put himself in a position to govern Hungary indefinitely. It will be interesting to see how long Orbán sees fit to pursue the battle against the virus despite the low numbers of persons infected with or deceased as a result of coronavirus.

Hungary’s press is faring dismally; most of the media outlets are owned by the state itself or friends of the prime minister. Another twist in this vicious circle is the fact that disseminating so-called “false” information about corona infection can now lead to five-year prison sentences.

What would a similar development look like in Norway? The media outlet Budstikka published a news story which incorrectly stated that several young patients were being treated with ventilators at Bærum hospital. Norwegian news agency NTB shared the report and it was in turn quoted by several other media. Editor-in-chief Kjersti Sortland was quick to issue an unambiguous apology. Should she have gone to jail – for five years?

Not surprisingly, similar laws on this sort of disinformation have also been adopted in the Philippines. President Rodrigo Duterte has been given additional freedoms to enable him to handle the Covid-19 crisis and persons spreading false news can be penalised with prison sentences or fines of up to 20,000 USD. The new legal provision appears to have been eagerly awaited; three days after its approval, a mayor, an editor and a blogger were indicted for spreading false information about corona. They each risk two months in jail as well as fines.

Underlying diseases

Just as underlying diseases have proven fatal for many patients of Covid-19, things were far from well in the Philippines before the arrival of coronavirus. In the Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, the Philippines is ranked at the index’s lower end, 134th of 180 countries.

Norway has topped the index for several years and continues to do so. According to the Economist’s Democracy Index, we are also the world’s most democratic country. But even in Norway, coronavirus poses challenges to democracy. The importance of herd immunity quickly became evident when professor of law Hans Petter Graver described the government’s new crisis bill as “permitting the authorities to take measures previously unparalleled in Norwegian democracy”. Since, lawyers and politicians have – true to Norwegian tradition – been engaging in a collective effort to safeguard democracy. Public debate has been free and unconstrained – and has, in line with the justification for freedom of expression, informed us. The outcome is exemplary, quite in line with what a country such as Norway should aspire to.

But why does coronavirus strike against the respiratory system of democracy?

China, which has increased its diplomatic efforts post-corona, is criticised not only for infecting the rest of the world with the virus to begin with – but also for exporting authoritarian forms of government. Numerous bloggers and journalists who filed reports about the virus have since disappeared; moreover, China is also cutting down on disseminating the results of its scientific research.

There is no such thing as a perfect democracy. In the words of the title of Astra Taylor’s book, published last year: “Democracy may not exist, but we’ll miss it when it’s gone”.

Countries that have an underlying democratic vulnerability cannot endure bad news – nor can they tolerate a sense of losing control. Where weak democracies and their governments get to determine what is false information, press freedom is under threat.

Links:

Tracker19 https://rsf.org/en/tracker19-Coronavirus-Covid19

Council of Europe: https://www.coe.int/en/web/commissioner/-/press-freedom-must-not-be-undermined-by-measures-to-counter-disinformation-about-covid-19

Professor Graver: https://www.aftenposten.no/norge/politikk/i/lA5q5A/jusprofessor-om-kriselov-mot-koronaviruset-aapner-for-aa-gjoere-ting-som-vi-i-dag-ikke-kan-forestille-oss

China: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/03/china-steps-up-western-media-campaign-over-coronavirus-crisis?utm_term=RWRpdG9yaWFsX01lZGlhQnJpZWZpbmctMjAwNDAz&utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&CMP=media_email&utm_campaign=MediaBriefing

https://warontherocks.com/2020/03/how-china-is-exploiting-the-pandemic-to-export-authoritarianism/

https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/12/asia/china-coronavirus-research-restrictions-intl-hnk/index.html

This original version of this article appeared in Norwegian in Dagens Næringsliv

Author Photo

Kjersti Løken Stavrum  is CEO at the Tinius Trust and Blommenholm Industrier. She is President of Norwegian PEN,  head of the Norwegian Government’s commission on freedom of speech and a member of the board of Ethical Journalism Network.  Kjersti has held various managerial positions within Norwegian media, including editor iat Aftenposten, Oslo. She was formerly secretary general of the Norwegian Press Association, head of Association of Norwegian Editors in Oslo, board member of International News Media Association (INMA) and director of communications of The Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise (NHO). She has a master’s degree in political science (UiO) and an exec. master of management (BI).