COVID-19 is threatening press freedoms abroad. Could it happen here, too?

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Photo (cc) 2012 by the European People’s Party.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

For an aspiring autocrat like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a gift-wrapped opportunity to crack down on what’s left of his country’s free press.

Hungary’s parliament recently approved a state of emergency that allows Orbán to rule by decree. Among other things, journalists may be imprisoned for up to five years if they spread what the government considers to be misinformation about COVID-19. According to an anonymous journalist quoted in The Guardian, the measure began having its censorious effect even before it was voted on, as she learned after she called a hospital to ask about doctors who may have contracted the virus.

“A few minutes later,” she said, “the hospital’s chief communication officer called me back and asked if I think it’s a good idea to keep asking about this, a day before the government’s bill will be passed.”

Even as COVID-19 spreads disease, death and economic disruption across the world, it may also be contributing to repression in the name of protecting public health. The ominous developments are described in a new report by Reporters without Borders (known by its French acronym, RSF), which accompanies its annual World Press Freedom Index.

The index ranks countries on the basis of how much freedom journalists have to do their jobs and hold the powerful to account. According to RSF, the rankings have dropped several notches among countries that have suppressed the media as part of their response to COVID-19 — not just Hungary (now 89th), but also China (177th), Iran (173rd) and Iraq (162nd).

“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,” said RSF Secretary-general Christophe Deloire in a statement accompanying the report.

Cracking down on the media is not the only step governments are taking to stifle dissent. As The New York Times recently noted in a round-up of repressive responses to COVID-19, countries ranging from democracies such as Britain and Israel to more authoritarian states such as Chile and Bolivia have trampled on their citizens’ rights in the name of protecting public health. The measures include enhanced detention powers, increased surveillance and, in Bolivia’s case, postponing elections.

Draconian though those measures may be, threats to freedom of the press are uniquely dangerous because of its role as a monitor of power. Take that away and we have no way of knowing about the full extent of government repression.

Nor has the United States escaped the notice of RSF. Although its press freedom ranking of 45th is up slightly over last year, it still lags well behind Western European countries, in large measure because of President Donald Trump’s war against the media. Among other things, the report cites the Justice Department’s decision to file espionage charges against WikiLeaks co-founder Julian Assange as well as the “public denigration and harassment of journalists.”

Although RSF doesn’t mention it, the COVID-19 pandemic could accelerate the deterioration of press freedom in the U.S. In recent weeks President Trump has commandeered an hour or two of television time on many afternoons, using his bully pulpit, so to speak, to insult individual reporters when they try to ask tough questions. The media have been willing participants in their own delegitimization, with many outlets giving Trump free airtime and individual reporters rarely acting in solidarity.

There may be limits. As The Washington Post reported, a CNN reporter refused to move from her front-row seat on Friday after being ordered to do so by a White House official. Despite threats to involve the Secret Service, the White House apparently backed off. (Seat assignments are managed by the independent White House Correspondents Association.) And Trump — humiliated by the mockery he received after suggesting that people could ingest bleach to fight COVID-19 — vowed not to take part in any more press briefings. (By Monday, unsurprisingly, he was back at the podium.)

But though there is a buffoonish nature to Trump’s war against the press that sometimes makes it difficult to take him seriously, the fears raised by the pandemic and the economic catastrophe that has resulted could empower the president to take new measures against journalists, whom he regularly calls “enemies of the people.”

We may be in the midst of a well-meaning reduction in media access at the local level as well. Local officials, like all of us, are meeting via Zoom, which makes it more difficult for reporters to understand what’s going on and to ask questions. And when public officials try to be open, they run the risk of being Zoom-bombed. Just last week the New Haven Independent reported that the city’s board of alders got hit with child pornography. That same night, the Hamden legislative council had to shut down its meeting in the face of Zoom-bombers posting racist and homophobic slurs.

It happened in Cambridge, too, according to Cambridge Day.

Zoom has security features, such as password protection and waiting rooms, that make it harder for trolls to break in. But that also makes it harder to live up to the letter and the spirit of open-meeting laws. The New England First Amendment Coalition recently urged that local officials delay crucial decisions until in-person meetings can be resumed, saying, “Government bodies should not opportunistically take advantage of the public’s inability to attend large gatherings to make critical decisions affecting the public’s interest if those decisions can reasonably be postponed.” But what if a month or two becomes six? Or 12? Or 18?

The pandemic is also accelerating the censorship of speech on Facebook and other internet platforms. According to an essay in The Atlantic by law professors Jack Goldsmith of Harvard and Andrew Keane Woods of the University of Arizona, this is actually a positive development, as, even before COVID-19, algorithmic tools were being brought to bear on “bullying, harassment, child sexual exploitation, revenge porn, disinformation campaigns, digitally manipulated videos, and other forms of harmful content.”

They add: “What is different about speech regulation related to COVID-19 is the context: The problem is huge and the stakes are very high. But when the crisis is gone, there is no unregulated ‘normal’ to return to. We live — and for several years, we have been living — in a world of serious and growing harms resulting from digital speech.” Or, as they put it elsewhere in their essay: “In the great debate of the past two decades about freedom versus control of the network, China was largely right and the United States was largely wrong.”

Good Lord. That’s a lot to wrap our minds around. As Noah Rothman puts it in Commentary: “Much of Goldsmith and Woods’ argument glosses over the important consideration that the Chinese model is dependent on coercion.”

But I’m going to leave aside the larger debate about free speech and repression so that I can hone in on one small but vitally important issue that Goldsmith and Woods gloss over. We already live in a world in which most news consumption takes place online, and an ominously large percentage of that consumption is mediated by Facebook. If Facebook’s role as an arbiter of news is going to grow even more powerful, and if we’re going to applaud the Zuckerborg for eliminating speech that it deems harmful, it seems to me that we’re going to have a free-press problem that is exponentially larger than Reporters without Borders’ most dystopian vision.

Then again, for a lot of us, freedom isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. According to a 2018 study by Elizabeth J. Zechmeister of Vanderbilt University, about one in four U.S. adults “believes a coup would be justifiable in times of high crime or high corruption.” Imagine to what heights that support might soar if we get into, say, September or October, and conditions continue to deteriorate.

Former Vice President Joe Biden, the likely Democratic presidential nominee, has already warned that President Trump might try to delay the November election. Would he try? Would he attempt to declare a state of emergency, as Hungarian leader Orbán has done? Would U.S. military leaders obey their commander-in-chief — or their oath to defend the Constitution?

Our liberties are fragile, and that is especially the case at a terrible moment like the one we’re living through. Can freedom of the press survive the pandemic? It’s already been seriously damaged in Hungary and elsewhere. And it’s going to require vigilance — and luck — for it not to be seriously damaged in America as well.

Talk about this post on Facebook.