The coronavirus means authoritarian governments are imposing 'shock doctrines' says press freedom report

Anti-government demonstrators wave an Iraqi national flag during a demonstration in Tahrir square, against the breach of Iraqi sovereignty by the U.S. and Iran.
Ameer Al Mohammedaw | picture alliance | Getty Images

The coronavirus crisis has helped threaten people's right to reliable information in countries where governments have suppressed the media, according to a new report.

The World Press Freedom Index 2020 ranks 180 countries and territories in terms of their media independence and transparency and is compiled by international non-profit Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Countries such as China, Iran and Iraq rank low on the list in part due to their handling of the media during the pandemic, according to the report published Tuesday.

"There is a clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and a country's ranking in the Index. Both China (177th) and Iran (down 3 at 173rd) censored their major coronavirus outbreaks extensively. In Iraq (down 6 at 162nd), the authorities stripped Reuters of its licence for three months after it published a story questioning official coronavirus figures," the report stated.

China's censorship policies have come under scrutiny since the outbreak of the virus in Wuhan in late 2019, with social media platforms blocking certain terms, according to a report last month. The country's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying has rejected accusations of spreading disinformation.

Iran was accused of not being transparent about the scale of the outbreak in February, although its health ministry rejected such claims. In Iraq, a Reuters report on April 2 cited three doctors who said the country had many more Covid-19 cases than the government claimed. On April 14, Reuters reported that its license had been suspended as a result.

"The coronavirus pandemic illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information, and is itself an exacerbating factor. What will freedom of information, pluralism and reliability look like in 2030? The answer to that question is being determined today," RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said in an online statement.

Hungary passed a bill to allow Prime Minister Viktor Orban to prevent public demonstrations and mitigate criticism by political opponents and the media last month and the country has fallen two places to 89 in the World Press Freedom Index.

"The public health crisis provides authoritarian governments with an opportunity to implement the notorious 'shock doctrine' — to take advantage of the fact that politics are on hold, the public is stunned and protests are out of the question, in order to impose measures that would be impossible in normal times," Deloire added.

In 2019's report, the U.S. was classified as a "noticeably problematic" place to be a journalist, with the country falling three places to 48. This year, the U.S. is placed 45th.

Norway holds the top spot in this year's ranking, followed by Finland and Denmark. The U.K. is down two places to 35, while India has also fallen two spots to rank 142nd.