Deutsche Welle is presenting journalists from four continents with this year’s Freedom of Speech Award for their coverage of the coronavirus crisis.
The recipients are being honored on behalf of all media professionals around the world who are publishing independent information about the coronavirus pandemic while working under difficult conditions.
“At a moment of a global health emergency, journalism serves a crucial function, and each journalist bears great responsibility,” DW Director General Peter Limbourg said while announcing the award winners in Berlin.
“Citizens of any country have the right of access to fact-based information and critical findings,” he said. “Any form of censorship may result in casualties and any attempts to criminalize coverage of the current situation clearly violate the freedom of expression.”
Attacked, threatened, arrested’
Michelle Bachelet, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said in a video message to the journalists honored that the general public needs “full and accurate information about the pandemic, and to be involved in the decisions that are being made on our behalf.”
“It is shocking, in such a context, that journalists are being attacked, threatened, arrested, accused of spurious crimes and even disappeared because of their reporting about the pandemic,” she said.
Journalist organizations have reported widespread incursions on press freedom during the coronavirus pandemic.
“In all parts of the world, authoritarian regimes have been unable to resist using this unprecedented crisis to establish or tighten control over the national media and to step up state censorship,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.
The International Press Institute documented more than 150 violations of press freedom worldwide through the end of April. The IPI has tracked cases of censorship and restrictions on access to information — but the greatest number of violations of press freedom have been arrests of journalists and verbal or physical attacks on them.
‘I am not afraid of dying’
The situation is particularly difficult for journalists in countries where press freedom is already severely restricted — such as in China, where the virus was first discovered in December 2019.
During the pandemic, the whole world has felt “the effects of the nearly total control over Chinese news,” Reporters Without Borders has noted. When in doubt, “the enforcement of censorship orders is put above health and safety.” In this year’s World Press Freedom Index, China came in just four spots above last place.
Chen Qiushi kept followers informed about the situation in the quarantined megacity of Wuhan
The disappearance of several Chinese citizen journalists in connection with the outbreak made headlines around the world. Before he disappeared on February 6, lawyer Chen Qiushi had used Twitter and YouTube to keep followers informed about the situation in the quarantined megacity of Wuhan.
“I am afraid,” Chen said just a few days before his disappearance in a YouTube video that has since been viewed nearly 3 million times. “The disease is in front of me, and China’s police and judiciary are behind me.”
“But, as long as I live, I will continue to report and only pass on what I have seen and heard myself,” he said. “I am not afraid of dying. Communist Party — do you think I’m afraid of you?”
Chen had previously showed that he was not afraid of China’s Communist Party in 2019, when he reported about the protests in Hong Kong.
Businessman Fang Bin also posted videos online and livestreamed about the situation in Wuhan, his hometown, before he disappeared. On February 1, he filmed, among other things, body bags piled in a vehicle parked outside a hospital.
The next day, Fang reported that the police had confiscated his laptop and interrogated him. Since February 9, there has been no trace of Fang Bin.
The repression continues. Since April 19, three Chinese activists who previously worked on an anti-censorship project have been missing.
Defending press freedom during the COVID-19 pandemic
Threats from above
The case of Elena Milashina in Russia also gained international attention. The award-winning investigative journalist has been writing for the newspaper Novaya Gazeta since 1996.
Milashina became the target of regional ruler Ramzan Kadyrov for her critical reporting on how the Russian Federation republic of Chechnya is handling the coronavirus outbreak.
Milashina faced threats to her life for reporting on people with COVID-19 symptoms in Chechnya
In mid-April, Milashina wrote an article about how residents of the region with COVID-19 symptoms did not seek treatment for fear of reprisals.
In a video circulated on social media a day later, Kadyrov called on Russian security services to “stop these nonhumans who write and provoke my people.”
If the authorities want “us to commit a crime and become criminals — then say so,” Kadyrov said. Human rights organizations interpreted the statements as a death threat against Milashina.
Kadyrov’s actions prompted a call to action from the German government’s human rights commissioner, Bärbel Kofler, as well as French ambassador-at-large for Human Rights Francois Croquette. They urged Russia to investigate the threats against Milashina.
“Threats by state officials are totally unacceptable and contradict the rule of law,” they said in a joint statement.
Milashina, who has been researching human rights violations and corruption in Chechnya for years, was attacked and beaten in February at a hotel in the republic’s capital, Grozny.
Imprisoned 12 days
On March 21, Venezuela’s Special Action Forces (FAES) arrested the 25-year-old journalist Darvinson Rojas at his apartment in the capital, Caracas, for his reporting on the coronavirus pandemic.
Rojas wrote on Twitter that FAES officers initially claimed to have received an anonymous tip about a coronavirus case. According to Amnesty International, however, he was later questioned by the police about the sources behind the coronavirus figures that he had published.
After 12 days in prison, Rojas was released on bail and charged with “instigation to hatred” and “public instigation,” among other crimes. Amnesty has described the charges as “an attempt to silence the reporting of Darvinson Rojas on the pandemic in Venezuela.”
According to Reporters Without Borders, harassment of members of the press, arbitrary arrests and violence against journalists by police and security services in Venezuela has intensified since 2017.
DW demands release of jailed journalists
“We honor all our colleagues who are being prevented by force from doing their job in these difficult times,” DW Director General Limbourg said.
“Deutsche Welle is demanding that all journalists worldwide who have been arrested because of their coverage of the COVID-19 crisis are released immediately,” he added.
Since 2015, DW’s Freedom of Speech Award has been awarded annually to initiatives and individuals who have made outstanding contributions to human rights and freedom of speech.
Previous award winners include the Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, the White House Correspondents’ Association, and the Mexican journalist and author Anabel Hernández.
Usually the award ceremony is the highlight of the Global Media Forum in Bonn, but, because of the coronavirus pandemic, DW will host the conference online this year.