When the pandemic hit Myanmar, a country with one of the worst healthcare systems in Asia, millions of people were forced to stay home. But local journalists were surprised to hear they were expected to do the same.
Photographers, videographers and even newspaper delivery truck drivers faced movement restrictions if trying to leaving Yangon, the country’s commercial capital, as early as April.
“We could not go out to gather and verify information or sometimes take photos and videos,” Myint Kyaw, head of the Myanmar Press Council, told VICE News. “In a month, we’re having our general elections and journalists cannot go out to deliver accurate news to our audience.”
Myanmar is now struggling to contain a second wave, journalists who violate lockdown orders to cover news could face up to three months in jail, Kyaw said. Only state-owned media outlets can fully operate.
The Southeast Asian country is no outlier, according to a new report released Friday from U.S. based non-profit Freedom House, which documented similar pandemic-related limits on press freedom in more than 90 countries as part of a broader look at the state of democracy and human rights around the world.
The report, called Democracy Under Lockdown, drew its findings from research and surveys with hundreds of journalists, civil society groups and activists across 192 countries.
While media freedom has “precipitously deteriorated” over the last 14 years globally, Freedom House said the pandemic has made it worse as restrictions prevent journalists from disseminating impartial information and holding authorities to account.
Journalists have been arrested and targeted with violence, harassment and intimidation. They have been denied press credentials and had less control over asking questions during videolink press conferences. News websites have also been blocked and social media posts removed.
The report highlighted several cases in Southeast Asia, including the shutdown of ABS-CBN in July, the leading TV network in the Philippines, after persistent condemnations from President Rodrigo Duterte.
“Even when governments seem to be providing accurate information, quarantines and restrictions on travel may hinder the ability of the media to monitor and question them,” the report said, though it did point out that journalism and even investigations have thrived in certain countries where demand for factual information is high.
The organization also expressed alarm over moves to stifle free speech and criticism of governments in at least 72 countries. In some cases, doctors who criticized the pandemic response were forced to apologize later through a video message.
“Governments and citizens must recognize that press freedoms and freedom of expression are essential tools for exposing misconduct and assessing the effectiveness of the pandemic response. Public health depends on the protection of these core democratic values,” the report said.
Overall, the think-tank said democracy has “declined” in at least 80 countries during the pandemic, especially in repressive states.