Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, countries have been forced to go on lockdown, close borders, discourage physical contact and mass gatherings, and resort to other measures that may have the incidental effect of concentrating power to a few. Never has there been more opportunity for authoritarian leaders to consolidate the government’s might in order to stifle some essential freedoms — such as the right of movement and speech and expression — in the name of public health. Never has there been an opportunity to control the flow of information and skirt around public accountability for government failures.
In the Philippines, activists critical of the government especially are only too easily prosecuted for ‘illegal assembly’ for holding placards during relief operations, as is the case for those arrested by police in Marikina, or the overseas Filipino worker in Taiwan threatened to be deported by the Philippine government. Even student journalists’ freedoms are stamped on by barangay officials — in fact, local government officials take the lead in censoring posts and actions critical of the government, even if these fall squarely within free speech rights. Reporters have also been attacked by pro-government political activists.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also ushered in a ‘twin’ pandemic: a pandemic of disinformation, or an ‘infodemic,’ as defined by the World Health Organization, where false news about the virus may spread faster than the virus itself. This is made more challenging since a lot about the COVID-19 disease are uncertain, and even scientists do not profess to know everything about the virus. Where citizens now mainly rely on the internet for information, and where most interactions are made online, journalists are burdened to take on their responsibility to provide fair, accurate, and independent reports all the more seriously, with the added duty to provide context and balance.
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