Among the many victims of the coronavirus pandemic is a free press. Make no mistake, the press is not in nearly as precarious a predicament as so many other victims and industries, but at a time when getting truthful news to the public is paramount, it most assuredly is a victim.
And yet at the same time, there are glimmers of hope.
Let’s start with the bad news.
Amid growing tensions between the United States and China surrounding the pandemic, there have been restrictions imposed by both countries on the ability of their own journalists to report the news in the opposite country.
The rift began in February when Chinese officials, upset about the headline on an opinion piece about the coronavirus outbreak that ran in The Wall Street Journal, revoked the press credentials of three WSJ reporters based in Beijing.
The headline in question referred to China as “the real sick man of Asia.” (It’s important to note that the editorial departments of the WSJ – like most other major U.S. papers – maintain complete independence from the newsrooms.) And yet Chinese officials told three newsroom journalists to leave the country within five days.
The White House responded to the move in March by dismissing dozens of U.S.-based Chinese nationals employed by state-owned Chinese news operations.
Just two weeks later, China escalated the war on reporters. It banned all American nationals in the country who work for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. Mind you, these three publications are widely regarded as among the most reliable and trustworthy news operations emanating from the United States. In doing so, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson announced:
In recent years, the US government has placed unwarranted restrictions on Chinese media agencies and personnel in the US, purposely made things difficult for their normal reporting assignments, and subjected them to growing discrimination and politically-motivated oppression.
As the Hong Kong Free Press opined, China’s government appears to have taken a rhetorical cue from President Trump in announcing its decision, with the government’s spokesperson saying, “We reject ideological bias against China, reject fake news made in the name of press freedom, reject breaches of ethics in journalism.”
The moves by the two countries are not equally disturbing. The cap on Chinese journalists from state-run media instituted by the U.S. State Department was limited to paring down the number of Chinese nationals from 160 to 100. The Chinese moves eliminated all employees of three critical privately-owned American news operations. Still, as Yelena Dzhanova of CNBC commented, “The move [by the United States] to impose a cap may escalate already-existing tensions between the United States and China, which come as the deadly coronavirus outbreak continues to spread globally.”
And as USA Today noted, the three organizations booted by China were at the forefront of reporting on corruption in China and the coronavirus pandemic at a time when China tried to suppress information about the deadly onset and spread of the disease in its country.
Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron lamented as much, tweeting, “The Chinese government’s decision is particularly regrettable because it comes in the midst of an unprecedented global crisis, when clear and reliable information about the international response to covid-19 is essential.”
In an astonishing open letter to the Chinese government, the publishers of the Journal, the Times, and the Post, jointly beseeched that government to reverse its decision to expel their journalists from China. They wrote:
We strongly urge the Chinese government to reverse its decision to force the Americans working for our news organizations to leave the country, and, more broadly, to ease the growing crackdown on independent news organizations that preceded this action. The media is collateral damage in a diplomatic dispute between the Chinese and U.S. governments, threatening to deprive the world of critical information at a perilous moment.
Our news organizations are rivals. We compete with each other on the biggest stories, including this one. But on this matter we speak with a single voice. Both countries – and the rest of the world – benefit from having talented journalists, many of them fluent in Chinese and versed in Chinese culture, cover the world’s second largest economy, the center of global manufacturing, and, unfortunately, a population hard hit by one of the worse pandemics of modern times. Even when this crisis passes we believe both countries will continue to benefit from freer access to news and information about the other.
But now let’s turn to the good news.
The suppression of truthful information and promotion of state-sponsored propaganda in China has apparently produced a significant backlash by prominent Chinese journalists and even a cadre of citizen journalists who are fed up with the suppression of the truth.
The New York Times reported recently that as the Communist Party has tried to fill its airwaves with positive stories about the government’s battle against the virus, Chinese reporters have battled back.
“When Jacob Wang saw reports circulating online recently suggesting that life was getting better in Wuhan, the center of the coronavirus outbreak, he was irate,” wrote Javier C. Hernandez in the Times. After traveling to Wuhan to chronicle the failures of the government firsthand, the Times reported, Wang “took to social media to set the record straight, writing a damning post last month about sick patients struggling to get medical care amid a dysfunctional bureaucracy.”
Wang and other journalists have been buoyed by overwhelming support from the public and “widespread calls for free speech,” and their stories have stoked widespread anger in China.
One general interest magazine called Profile published a damning interview with a doctor in China who was warned not to share information about the onset of the coronavirus in Wuhan. The article almost immediately disappeared, with virtually no doubt that it was killed by the Chinese government.
But supporters on the Internet revived the story using emojis, Morse code and obscure languages to evade government censors.
Brave Chinese journalists appear on a mission to skirt the stifling control of government news censors and promote free speech and a free press. Much of the Chinese public is applauding, even cheering, these efforts. “Facts are like firewood,” the Times quoted a Chinese reporter as saying. “The more you pile on, the greater the force when a spark finally lights it.”
It is a crying shame that a global catastrophe like the coronavirus pandemic is what it takes for free speech to spread in repressed countries like China.
As tragic as that is, at least it’s a start.