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Anne Renzenbrink
"Attacks on the freedom of the press"

Anne Rezenbrink
© Anne Rezenbrink

There have been some spectacular investigative stories on Covid-19. But attacks on journalists have risen, freedom of the press has shrunk in the pandemic. Press freedom can’t be taken for granted anymore, even in democratic societies.

By Chaitanya Marpakwar

​Anne Renzenbrink is a Press Officer with Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Berlin, Germany, which saw some of the most widespread anti-Corona demonstrations in Europe. Anne says that while some spectacular journalism is being done in the Covid-19 pandemic by some, ‘heroes’ of information but largely, trust in the media has hit a new low in recent times and attacks on journalists have risen exponentially. Having tracked attacks on journalists and their safety since the pandemic broke out, Anne says, journalists facing aggression and abuse in the line of duty is a worrying trend. While cautioning journalists to be alert and careful, Anne recommends that every incident of abuse or attack must be reported to authorities, social media, and journalists forums like the RSJ.

Excerpts from a conversation

What according to you were some of the striking features of the Covid-19 media coverage? Anything that stood out?

The Covid-19 pandemic saw some spectacular investigative stories. Though I’m not a science or health journalist, I found that during the course of covering Covid-19, many media outlets were putting out numbers without putting them in context. For instance, they were comparing them with the population and putting them in a better context. I was amazed at some of the work that colleagues have done. There have been some spectacular investigative stories. This is something we can be proud of. But this has been a learning process for all of us. Health and science journalism should be offered in more journalism schools. It’s something to look at. Health reporting must be out more in focus. I don’t want to criticise journalists who were overwhelmed and went about doing their job. But this is something that we need to focus more on the future and offer this in journalism schools.

How did work change for you during the pandemic?
I was working from home since March and rejoined my office in October.
Things have changed for us too since March as we started a dedicated website focusing on coronavirus and press freedom. We have been observing that Covid-19 related restrictions have affected press freedom around the world in a very negative way. So in March and April, we focussed on the working conditions of journalists and observed how governments reacted.
You work with Reporters Without Borders (RSF). How has the freedom of the press been hit by the pandemic?
Freedom of the press has shrunk globally. Our findings on freedom of the press in Covid-19 have revealed several key takeaways. We have seen various forms of suppression of press freedom. There’s been a classical censorship as we know it where stories and articles were taken down from websites. Journalists were detained at many places and were told to publish only the official information that came from the government. We saw that many laws were made to support this kind of censorship in some countries. So this took many forms. Even in the democratic European Union (EU) countries, we observed worrying developments.
What about freedom of the press in Germany during the pandemic?
In Germany, this started very early with the pandemic. We saw a lot of violence against journalists in Germany. People were protesting against coronavirus restrictions and journalists were covering that. But there, people from the far-right in Germany were coming together with the protestors who have always been against journalists. And so there were many physical attacks. Journalists and their cameramen were being kicked and beaten. There has also been a lot of verbal aggression too. We haven’t completed our verification process, but it will definitely be more than last year (attacks on journalists).
What has been the most worrying among these attacks on the press?
Physical and verbal attacks on journalists are worrying. We are worried that journalists will stop going to demonstrations because they are afraid. Some journalists tweeted that they stopped going to some protests or stopped filming. After the pandemic, is this kind of aggression against the media going to disappear? I’m worried about this, if it stays. This is the big negative takeaway to what has happened to the media this year.
Did you find any major differences in the coverage of the pandemic in Asia and Europe?
Space for the media has shrunk globally. Not just in China, but we have examples from all over the world. The degree might vary but freedom of the press has shrunk across the world. In each country, it might have taken a different shape and multiple forms. It can be subtle and also be obvious, but it is a global problem.
Since you say that space for media has shrunk globally, can you cite some examples that were particularly shocking?
I was surprised at the degree of violence in Germany. In May, a camera team from the German public broadcaster was attacked brutally. They were covering an anti-Covid restriction demonstration. This doesn’t happen so often that attacks are so brutal, that people have to be treated in a hospital. This shocked me. How much anger can people have against the media? But the positive thing has been that many are defending press freedom at the frontline. In China, incredible reporting has been happening despite the crackdown against media and whistle-blowers. There have been some very good reports. This reminds us that there is also some positive in this. They are the heroes of information. For instance, Dr. Li Wenliang, who tried to issue the first warning about the deadly coronavirus outbreak. The Chinese government took down what he shared, claiming he was making false statements, but there were many activists who shared this information again and again and translated this into different languages. There have also been very important investigative stories - cases where authorities have not acted fast enough or where they have tried to cover up something.
Was something missing from the media coverage?
Some human interest stories were missing. It was really important that things were explained in an easy way. Not everyone is a medical or data expert. I was also overwhelmed in the early days, I was worried for my friends and family, and then delving into this topic. Looking at how governments are handling this at a time when people are dying. I was overwhelmed emotionally. But it is my job to defend people who are on the frontline covering this pandemic, doing super dangerous stuff in really tough conditions. Many journalists are also at the risk of getting infected. Even those who were detained could get infected in prisons. This has happened.
Do you think there was self-censorship also? Will it last beyond the pandemic?
I think there has also been self-censorship. But we have to make sure that this doesn’t prevail and doesn’t become part of the mindset of people. Defending press freedom has become much more important even in free press societies. Having free information can save lives in a pandemic situation. People must have access to information from multiple sources and not just the government. The media must be able to cover all aspects of the pandemic. There is no place for censorship here. Censorship is highly dangerous, the people need access to free information.
So what is the key learning from the pandemic for you?
We can’t take press freedom for granted even in free press societies. Even in Germany or the EU, it has been very worrying. People are protesting because their basic rights are being suppressed by the restrictions, but at the same time, they are attacking journalists. But press freedom is also a basic right.
What about trust in the media? Has it also hit a new low?
Trust in the media has also gone down but I can’t substantiate it with data. Trust in the media goes parallel with attacks on journalists, they go hand in hand. They are co-related. If media freedom drops, then trust in media also drops, and it is a downward spiral from here. I think this is happening.
What should journalists under attack do? Is there anything they can do to protect themselves and the larger media community?
Attacks against journalists must be reported. Journalists must report all attacks. It is absolutely important to be factual and publish the correct information. In times like these, you can’t afford to get it wrong. There is an incredible need for good, factual journalism. It is important to speak about these attacks and make it public. Journalists must go to social media and tell what has happened to them. These incidents of attacks or abuse must be reported to the authorities. If you were attacked, then it must be reported to the police and to journalists’ forums and associations. So that this can be verified and documented and attackers can be punished. It’s also important that police are trained to handle journalists. The police must also know that the media has the right to cover protests and demonstrations. This is also very important.