THE Spanish flu — which claimed around 50 million lives between 1918 and 1920 — did not originate in Spain. It probably emerged in American military forts before spreading through Europe, fuelled by close contact in the First World War trenches. Spain wasn’t even particularly hard hit. The fact that we now associate that pandemic with Spain is a quirk of media censorship.
As the flu ravaged the US, UK, France and Germany, those countries censored news about the pandemic in order to preserve public morale during wartime. Spain, being a neutral country, felt no such compulsion, and its media transparently reported on the spread and horrific toll of the flu, ramping up coverage after the Spanish king fell ill. Amidst a global media blackout, the reports from Spain led many to believe the pandemic had originated there — and the name stuck.
This history highlights the role of the media in a global crisis, and the political implications of opting for transparency over censorship. A century on, as Covid-19 rips through the global population, governments are once again trying to suppress the news — to keep public order and minimise panic; to burnish state credentials for crisis management; to point-score in domestic politics; or to seize control of the press and strengthen authoritarian control that will outlast the pandemic. But remember, history repeats itself as farce.
Censoring the news during a pandemic can be fatal.
Today, newspaper publication is suspended across much of the Middle East. Reuters’ licence was suspended in Iraq for suggesting that the country was concealing the extent of the outbreak. Russian media outlets have been ordered to remove content critical of the state. India’s lockdown was preceded by a request from the prime minister to 20 media owners and editors to laud government actions. In Pakistan, news reports indicate that medical staff, particularly at government hospitals, have been discouraged from speaking to journalists.
Such news suppression can be fatal. Reporters Without Borders has argued that if it weren’t for media censorship in China, news of the coronavirus would have surfaced earlier, saving lives and potentially avoiding the current pandemic.
Unfolding in the era of social media, Covid-19 presents media challenges that the Spanish flu didn’t. Last week, the UN secretary general declared a ‘misinfo-demic’, pointing to the proliferation of inaccuracies and conspiracy theories about the virus. The UN is launching a communications project to tackle this, but the need is for responsible, unfettered journalism.
Governments have to strike a balance between allowing a free flow of information and regulating media content to ensure accuracy. This is tricky. And in countries like ours with authoritarian tendencies, the spectre of fake news provides a convenient cover for rampant censorship. Consider the threat of fines against those who circulate ‘fake news or rumours’ in Saudi Arabia, or Hungary’s emergency decree, including a five-year prison sentence for spreading false information, which journalists perceive as a direct attack.
Conditions are ripe in Pakistan for the Covid-19 crisis to enable intensified media censorship. Our state was already pursuing control of mainstream and social media content, most recently evidenced in the cabinet approval of the ‘Citizen Protection (Against Online Harm) Rules 2020’ and the damning European Commission review of the deterioration of media freedom since 2018.
But media censorship in the Covid-19 context will certainly backfire. And that’s because it will affect everyone, not just the journalists and activists that are the traditional targets of state silencing.
Lack of accurate information in the public domain will breed complacency, impatience with lockdowns, and the inevitable spread of the virus. As conditions worsen, and the full economic effect of the pandemic becomes apparent, further attempts to censor media coverage will lead to a discrepancy between public narrative and personal experience that will lead to states’ loss of credibility. Such a discrepancy would also lay bare the extent of censorship, producing resentment, not acquiescence, among the public.
It’s not too late to take a different course. Our government can start by supporting quality reportage by making information — and protective equipment — available to journalists. Let’s reframe journalists from anti-state whistleblowers into vital data gatherers, as the media can help the government track the virus’s spread in urban settlements and rural areas. We have few other options in the absence of a national healthcare infrastructure.
The media, too, needs to get coverage of the pandemic right, keeping it timely, factual and contextualised. This will rebuild trust with the public, which has been lost in recent years both through the industry’s own shortcomings, and the relentless effort to discredit it by the powers that be.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 20th, 2020