LONDON: The coronavirus pandemic is being used to erode press freedom in Iran, Iraq and China, according to the annual World Press Freedom Index report compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
The report found a correlation between press freedom and a country’s reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak.
It gave a low ranking to Iran, placed at 173 on the 180-country index, for its censorship of the pandemic.
Abdulla Hawez, a London-based Middle East researcher, told Arab News: “Given the centrality of the Iranian regime’s control over the country and the already censored media, there was naturally few, if any, media that challenged the government’s COVID-19 narrative.”
He added: “In Iran, the challenges to the narrative have mostly come from MPs and other opponents within the regime, who have questioned official numbers and the government’s handling of the pandemic.”
Iraq — which placed 162, down six on last year — was noted for censoring journalists covering the pandemic.
Baghdad stripped Reuters of its license to report in the country after it published a news piece querying the government’s narrative.
Targeting journalists for their reporting on COVID-19 follows a recent surge in the use of force against the press in Iraq.
Since October, the Iraqi media has been targeted by government security forces and Iran-backed militias, which have used live ammunition against protestors.
RSF said Iraq’s government is culpable for the aggression shown toward reporters in the country. The media regulator has suspended nine TV channels and restricted internet access.
There were notorious incidents of major news bureaus being raided by anonymous militias during the height of the civil unrest.
“Censorship in Iraq comes through unofficial means, such as threats from militias and tribes,” said Hawez.
Media observers focusing on China noted that the death toll in the city of Wuhan suddenly jumped last week, suggesting that the government has been censoring official figures.
“We are entering a decisive decade for journalism linked to crises that affect its future,” RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire said. “The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates the negative factors threatening the right to reliable information, and is itself an exacerbating factor. What will freedom of information, pluralism and reliability look like in 2030? The answer to that question is being determined today.”