. During this pandemic, governments have waged a parallel war on the truth | Ceasefire Magazine

Special Report | During this pandemic, governments have waged a parallel war on the truth

Globalised catastrophes often lend themselves to domestic manipulation by the state, and Covid-19 has proven no exception. Jack McGinn reports on how the pandemic became a battleground pitting authoritarian governments around the globe against independent journalism.

Features, New in Ceasefire, Special Reports - Posted on Monday, August 24, 2020 16:59 - 0 Comments

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A federal officer pepper sprays a protester in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, on July 20. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

COVID-19 has spread faster than any infectious disease in living memory, with recent research putting its basic reproduction number (r0) above other highly infectious diseases like Polio, Smallpox and AIDS or any previously encountered respiratory viruses such as SARS, Spanish Flu or the seasonal flu. Any reports of numbers infected worldwide are necessarily underestimates, given we do not know how many people are asymptomatic and/or carrying the virus while unlisted in official figures. The pandemic’s spread is, even when not taking into account the (still unclear) mortality rate, an order of magnitude greater than anything seen over the past century.

And yet, sufficiently drastic early measures to counter the outbreak have been undercut through complacency and underestimation, rather than any panic or ‘hysteria’. The supposed dangers of the latter are often touted by those in positions of power, but the greatest cause of excess deaths during this crisis have been state-led coverups of the spread and severity of the virus in various countries.

Journalists who have exposed this have been targeted by security apparatuses, jealously guarding evidence of state negligence and complicity in avoidable deaths. The state, caught in a wholly inadequate response to a major crisis and seeking to cover its tracks at the expense of the population is entirely typical, of course, but the manner in which the global Right have weaponised this rupture bears examination, as – if successful – they will seek to repeat it next time.

A combination of under-resourced alternative media, security services on war footings with extra funding and powers, and an anti-politics zeitgeist where reporters bear the brunt of public hostility to establishment institutions – this perfect storm has enabled a resurgent populist Right to strike at an age-old target, die Lügenpresse. While traditional media continue to face existential challenges exacerbated by the global lockdown, activists and whistleblowers have faced arrest (and worse) as emboldened surveillance and law enforcement networks exercise their new powers free from scrutiny in a panicked and distracted world. This pattern is observable worldwide, though it is more pronounced in authoritarian contexts – where leaders like Britain’s Johnson, Hungary’s Orbán, Egypt’s Sisi, China’s Xi, Brazil’s Bolsonaro and the US’s Trump have quickly mobilised resources at their disposal to crack down on dissenting reporting.

Geopolitically at odds though they may be, the new capitals of conservative reaction – London, Moscow, Beijing, Brasília, Washington DC – share a commitment to a draconian, centrally driven prioritisation of security, and a deep suspicion of the free flow of information. The speed and efficiency with which well-funded security services have managed to target revelations about the true numbers of those infected – under the guise of preventing “panic and fake news” – stands in sharp contrast to the inadequacy of the public health response to the deadly virus. Rather than protecting their citizens, states are primarily concerned with preserving existing power structures – “protect[ing] the minority of the opulent against the majority” as they ought to, according to James Madison, American founding father and fervent opponent of democracy.

The anti-democratic impulses at the highest echelons of American power remain sharp, with Donald Trump intensifying his war against the media and using his platform to promote unproven cures and misinformation about the virus’s spread. His refusal to act in late February/early March and impose social distancing measures has been shown to have caused 90% of American casualties since then. Today in America, the well-coordinated Black Lives Matter protests have caught the government on the back foot, but Attorney General William Barr has since used the crisis to form a task force targeting ‘anti-government extremists’ such as Antifa and Black Lives Matter.

Meanwhile, in making frequent reference to ‘the Chinese Virus’ Trump’s xenophobia has political utility, with external bogeymen and domestic minorities the targets of rage and retaliation. Historically, the association of diseases with places has usually been the result of political, rather than epidemiological, considerations. The 1918 ‘Spanish’ Flu outbreak was no worse in Spain than elsewhere, and did not originate there, but the continent’s wartime censorship – absent in neutral Spain – meant that news of the virus abounded there and nowhere else.

The Chinese government, meanwhile, sought to hide the extent of the outbreak in its early stages, suppress information about human-to-human transmission, and target citizen journalists and medical whistle-blowers in the epicentre of Wuhan. Dr Li Wenliang, who later died from the disease, had tried to warn fellow medical professionals of the infectiousness and severity of COVID-19 on 30 December, only to targeted by police for “making false comments” that had “severely disturbed the social order”. Citizen journalists Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin have been missing since early February, after reporting on insufficient medical supplies in Wuhan’s hospitals. Another Wuhan-based vlogger, Li Zehua, was arrested and disappeared for two months only to re-emerge in April, praising his captors and vowing to practice only “impartial” reporting henceforth.

Recent documents confirm the link between the government’s admission of the likelihood of a new pandemic and their deliberate silence for six days after, thus aiding the initial spread from Wuhan, which held a mass banquet for tens of thousands of people during that time, and saw millions begin to travel in preparation for the Lunar New Year celebrations. The televised admonishment of eight doctors, including Dr Li, for ‘rumour-mongering’ ensured that no further warnings were heard and no preparations could be made.

Elsewhere, governments have weaponised the crisis to eliminate any transparency safeguards and imprison reporters who spread ‘misinformation’. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán granted himself sweeping powers to crush the already weakened oppositional media, with a new law passed allowing jail terms of up to five years for journalists deemed to be ‘fearmongering’. With its press under constant attack, Hungary has steadily been removing all space for dissent, casting itself as a lone European bulwark against migrants and ‘globalism’, and vigorously pursuing uncooperative independent media. Loud voices within have encouraged the crackdown, like historian and magazine editor Márton Békés, who has argued that Hungary is now in a ‘war situation’ where some opposition media outlets are “openly rooting for the virus”.

Orbán’s ideological kin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, dismissed all evidence of the virus’s lethality, describing it as a ‘little flu’ that would, were he to contract it (which his refusal to wear a mask led to in July 2020), not concern him due to his ‘athletic background’ (in fact, Italy’s Patient One, who spent several weeks on life support, was a 38-year-old marathon runner). Bolsonaro was even more strident than his fellow autocrats in the US and Hungary, encouraging Brazilians to break state-imposed lockdowns, attend rallies and mingle freely, and then ordering government data on case totals deleted after he ‘freaked out’ upon seeing the Brazilian death toll surpassing that of the UK. With unemployment set to skyrocket and the country facing a simultaneous outbreak of dengue fever, Bolsonaro’s wilful negligence has led to tens of thousands of excess deaths, primarily among the quarter of the population living in poverty.

To escape the inevitable backlash, it remains possible that the president will encourage steps toward further centralisation of power, martial law, and even a return to military rule. Bolsonaro has long professed his admiration for this dark period of Brazilian history (which itself resorted to similar measures to hide the extent of a meningitis epidemic in the 1970s), and he recently declared to opposition lawmakers that “I am the Constitution”. Brazil’s notoriously violent police have used the epidemic as an excuse to run rampant through Rio’s favelas, killing with impunity despite local shutdowns and curfews that have naturally reduced criminal activity.

A single true story about the spread of the virus led to the targeting of a journalist in the hyper-paranoid military state of Egypt, since 2013 under the dictatorial rule of General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and, since 2017, under a state of emergency. The Guardian’s correspondent there, Ruth Michaelson, accurately reported the findings of a Lancet Infectious Diseases journal study, estimating that there were 19,310 coronavirus cases by late March, rather than the government’s figure of three. Egypt is one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom, with the country’s last independent media outlet, Mada Masr, raided by the government in November of last year. The editor-in-chief of AlkararPress, Atef Hasballah, was forcibly disappeared by security forces for nearly a month, following a Facebook post in which he challenged the official statistics on COVID-19 cases. Michaelson had managed to avoid arrest or expulsion in six years of critical reporting on various issues, but her story of government malfeasance and contempt for Egyptian lives in the face of COVID-19 was the final straw – she was stripped of her press accreditation and then summoned to a meeting with the authorities. She got the next plane to Berlin, narrowly escaping the fate of the estimated 60,000 political prisoners in Egypt.

Is there a pattern here? Globalised catastrophes have typically lent themselves to domestic manipulation by the state and local elites – the war on terror is perhaps the example freshest in our memory – but similar crises, real or imagined, have always been used to stifle dissent, whether with black and third world anti-colonial movements being targeted under the guise of anti-communism, or the mid-century European and Latin American dictatorships that seized power to ‘restore order’. More overt methods of censorship have tended to have less longevity, and far more effective has been the ‘manufacture of consent’ in liberal democracies aimed at marginalising dissenting media while crafting the impression of debate within the acceptable mainstream. The British government’s attitude to its servile media class is evidence of this – they are free to act with relative impunity during this crisis, safe in the knowledge that the nightly news bulletins will uncritically repeat the death tolls from daily press briefings, even though these are vast underestimates, or that there will be scant coverage of reports of major flaws in the vaunted Test-and-Trace programme that suggest any easing of the lockdown would be premature.

‘Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations’

So when faced with the state-sanctioned misanthropy to which these lies amount, where does this leave activists, citizen journalists and the majority of the population, increasingly suffering the consequences as the virus spreads through communities? Despite brutal crackdowns on independent journalism from India to Turkey, muckrakers continue to unearth stories that illustrate the scale of this ongoing calamity, and this information may prove vital to a collective fightback. The earliest efforts of this type were in China, where anonymous journalists circulated advice for their international colleagues on how to investigate the virus’ spread, even as the media landscape grew more perilous. Tips included monitoring social media for patients requesting help with the early onset of symptoms, which may give clues as to where new outbreaks are occurring. At every stage reporting faces further obstacles, with Freedom of Information laws being rewritten to frustrate attempts to force government transparency. Yet still, the rise of local mutual aid networks – facilitated by neighbourhood pamphlets, online coordination and scheduling to deliver food and medicine to those in need – has provided new avenues for information to flow, and communities to learn and protect themselves.

This trend has not been all positive, with increasing scepticism of government and mass media also providing space for conspiracy theories and junk science. These peddlers of paranoia – a Venn diagram uniting anti-vaxxers and the far right – take advantage of the information vacuum to offer racist and dangerous answers to populations wary of whom to trust. Activists should recognise that the appeal of conspiracism comes from its initial – and valid – premise: that the government does not have your best interests at heart, and is intent on hiding the truth. This is demonstrably the case, but we have an opportune moment to offer an alternative narrative focused on resistance to state coverups of a pandemic out of their control.

This is not the first time immense crimes have only been revealed through a stubborn commitment to spreading truths unpalatable to those in power. Were it not for Chelsea Manning’s bravery in leaking the Iraq War Logs, Daniel Ellsberg’s revelation of the scale of American atrocities in south-east Asia in the Pentagon Papers, or the anonymous whistleblower who laid bare international financial fraud by leaking the Panama Papers, such abuses of state and corporate power would have remained secret, as countless others still are. Our knowledge of endemic corruption and extrajudicial executions often comes through extra-legal avenues, and those who share this information receive little reward and face an array of powerful interests eager to silence them. Many journalists have now been jailed for critical reporting of their governments’ handling of the pandemic, while the increased powers afforded to authorities to combat the virus have also been used to suppress other alternative media coverage, with American police deliberately targeting journalists covering protests over the murder of George Floyd, and broadcasters being killed at an alarming rate under Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s trigger-happy rule.

Nevertheless the citizen-journalist phenomenon holds more promise for effective change than electoralism or the traditional media, with journalist Yashar Ali remarking (on the footage of Floyd’s murder by police) that “the cell phone camera has offered more protection to Black Americans than any law enforcement agency, court, prosecutor, elected official, or news organization.” The new democratisation of information has, as during the 2010-2011 Arab Spring and Occupy movements, enabled agile, decentralised networks to respond to ongoing crises through mass participation and coordination. Research continues to show how “social media now plays a critical role in disaster communication, specifically by breaking the traditional dynamics between sender and receiver and enabling real time peer-to-peer information exchanges.”

A crisis, with its attendant acceleration of social reorganisation, provides a moment to observe the way power structures intend to act, if released from their restraints. The requirement for a massive restructuring of economies and societies – the ‘war footing’ commonly called for by politicians and managers – is fertile soil in which fascists and other authoritarians (including self-described ‘Traditionalists’ like Steve Bannon and Aleksandr Dugin) can grow their influence and guide policy. Many of these figures already have the ear of the figureheads of the populist right, with Olavo de Carvalho influencing Bolsonaro’s COVID-denialism, Dominic Cummings guiding the UK’s discredited ‘herd immunity’ response, and Bannon – his arrest this week on charges of fraud notwithstanding – having recently returned to the Trump administration in an attempt to maintain its hold on power. Their playbook, according to which dissenting media and critical reporting are at turns targeted and drowned out in a sea of misinformation, will guide their response to future crises too.

Hannah Arendt pointed out that “if everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer. This is because lies, by their very nature, have to be changed, and a lying government has constantly to rewrite its own history”. Populations stunned by a world-changing calamity, as happened a decade ago with the financial crash and a decade before that on September 11th, will turn either to the easy answers offered by fascism, the cynical nihilist’s rejection of all politics, or an alternative rooted in trust in our communities and the free flow of information, that we might better fight back.

An old Quaker slogan brandished by advocates of adversarial media is ‘Speak Truth to Power’, which remains a precept for the idea of integrity in journalism. The issue with the exhortation, as has been pointed out, is its premise: Power already knows the truth and is busy trying to conceal it. Our concern should thus be to speak truth about power, and to each other. Today, our lives depend on which can spread faster: critical reporting on state inaction and negligence in the face of the pandemic, or the virus itself. When the next crisis comes, the networks of solidarity and information exchange we have built – and how effective and resilient to attacks from the state they are – will determine if, and how, we respond.

Jack McGinn

Jack McGinn is a writer with a background in activism in various solidarity and social justice movements in London, Ireland and Palestine. His writing has appeared in a number of publications, including Novara Media and the Justice Gap. He is on Twitter at @jack_mcginn.

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