Classroom connection: COVID-19’s impact on press freedom


The next decade is critical for the future of journalism, and the COVID-19 pandemic is deepening existing crises that already threaten free and independent reporting, Reporters Without Borders said April 21 as it released its annual World Press Freedom Index, which ranks 180 countries and regions on the level of freedom they afford journalists.

Christophe Deloire, secretary-general of the global media advocacy organization (also known as Reporters sans frontières, or RSF), said that the pandemic is exacerbating “the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information”: a geopolitical crisis, a technological crisis, a democratic crisis, a crisis of trust and an economic crisis.

In its overview of the rankings, RSF noted “a clear correlation between suppression of media freedom in response to the coronavirus pandemic and a country’s ranking.” China (177th) and Iran (173rd) censored information about the spread of COVID-19, RSF said.

The director of RSF’s London office, Rebecca Vincent, rebuked the Chinese government for its lack of truthful reporting when it first had the opportunity to provide information.

“If there had been a free press in China, if these whistleblowers hadn’t been silenced, then this could have been prevented from turning into a pandemic,” she told CNN Business. “Sometimes we can talk about press freedom in a theoretical way, but this shows the impact can at times be physical. It can affect all of our health.”

A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Geng Shuang, dismissed RSF’s criticism, saying that the organization “has always held deep-rooted prejudice against China” and its report “is not worth rebutting.”

USA not number one

The United States was 45th this year in the RSF rankings, an improvement of three places from 2019. Norway ranks first, as it has since 2017, and North Korea dropped one place to become the least free country, as it was in 2018 and 2017 (Turkmenistan occupied last place in 2019). Due to change brought about by general elections in May 2018, Malaysia had the largest improvement (22 places) to 101st, while Haiti — where protesters have targeted journalists — experienced the most significant drop (21 places) to 83rd.

While RSF’s “global indicator” — its measure of the overall state of press freedom — improved by 0.9% in 2020, it has declined by 12% since its creation in 2013. According to that indicator, press freedom is in a “very serious situation” in 13% of the countries and regions around the world, an increase of 2 percentage points from 2019.

For discussion

What makes the press in a given country “free”? Why is freedom of the press important? How does the level of press freedoms in the United States compare with what is found other countries? What role does a free press play in democratic societies?

Activities for students

Ask students to guess which countries around the world have the greatest and least amount of press freedoms. Then have them research their hypotheses using Reporters Without Borders’ 2020 rankings. Finally, help them contact a journalist in one of the countries they researched so they can ask questions by email or request a brief videoconference.

NLP resource

Press Freedoms Around the World” (NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom). Note: This lesson will be updated with the 2020 rankings this summer.

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