Jordan, the UAE, Oman, Morocco, Yemen and Iran. It is the sort of list that Index might compile for any number of attacks on freedom of expression. In this instance they are all countries that have chosen to ban the printing of newspapers and other media during the current Covid-19 crisis, ostensibly to contain the spread of the virus.
This trend of governments using this pandemic to close down newsprint is one of a series of trends that we have identified in compiling Index’s mapping project . The map, created in conjunction with Justice for Journalists Foundation, tracks media violations during the coronavirus crisis.
On 17 March, the Jordanian Council of Ministers ordered newspapers to stop producing print editions for two weeks in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Minister of state for media affairs Amjad Adaileh said at a press conference that the decision was “because they help the transmission of the pandemic”. On 21 March, the UAE’s National Media Council announced a temporary ban on printing all newspapers and magazines except for regular subscribers of the publications and large outlets in shopping centres.
The council said the decision was “in line with the precautionary measures taken to contain the spread of the virus. Several people touching the same printed material has the potential to disseminate the virus.”
Yet there is mounting evidence that there is little or no risk of catching the virus from newspapers, which has led Index to suspect that Covid-19 is being used as an excuse.
The World Health Organisation is reported to have said that the risk of contracting the virus from newsprint is “infinitely small”.
Professor George Lomonossoff, a virologist at the John Innes Centre said in a TV interview: “Newspapers are pretty sterile because of the way they are printed and the process they’ve been through. Traditionally, people have eaten fish and chips out of them for that very reason. So all of the ink and the print makes them actually quite sterile. The chances of that are infinitesimal.”
Former director general of the Indian Council of Medical Research N K Ganguly told the Deccan Herald: “It is more of a perception than reality that COVID-19 virus spreads through newspapers.
The risk of catching the virus from newsprint seems remote but some say the fear of it spreading that way is causing people not to buy print newspapers.
Vincent Peyrègne, CEO of the World Association of News Publishers, (WAN-IFRA) said:
“Today, modern newspaper production is fully automated from end to end. There is hardly human intervention until the last mile distribution point. The ink and solvent used in newspaper printing act as a disinfectant to a large extent and there is no evidence to show that newspapers are carriers of the virus. The rumours that the virus can spread through newspapers is also having a disastrous effect, and newspaper as a source of transmission of the virus is very remote.”
It is perhaps telling that the countries which appear high on various rankings of press freedom have not joined in with banning newsprint.
Peyrègne said these countries “banned print newspapers with the fallacious, or misleading argument that they needed to protect the health of citizens”.
“Any banning of media or placing of restrictions on journalists or media organisations is not only an attack on the freedom to inform and to be informed, but it also carries serious consequences in terms of responsibility for contributing to one of the most serious humanitarian and economic crises we have experienced in the last one hundred years. Nevertheless, many authoritarian countries feel that the crisis is the perfect excuse to crack down on free speech, silence their critics and accelerate repressive measures,” said Peyrègne.
The ban on print editions of newspapers and magazines has contributed to a devastating effect on circulations.
Peyrègne said: “The month of April hit the circulation of the daily press hard, due to confinement, the closure of sales outlets and the shutdown of transport. Generally speaking, readership and subscription surged dramatically during the lockdown. Some segments were obviously more affected than others.”
In the UK, the auditing body ABC has told publishers they no longer have to reveal their print circulations, a move which media trade journal Press Gazette says may mean we “never get the full picture of the impact of coronavirus on newspaper sales”. It says that News UK is the only major publisher to say it will not provide the figures so far.
The crisis has also seen a dramatic acceleration in the move of local newspapers away from print. Many local newspapers rely on advertising from their communities and most of these businesses have been forced to close during the crisis, sucking revenues from the publishers.
News Corp Australia announced at the end of May that 76 of its local and regional newspapers would become digital only while 36 others would cease publication permanently.
It is good to see that some countries, including Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan have reversed their bans but such incidents represent just a small part of wider crackdowns on media freedom that we are witnessing at this time of crisis and which we are reporting on our interactive map.
Newspapers play a vital role in informing communities, particularly at times of crisis, and the combination of misguided bans and the poor financial viability of some titles will be a loss that will be keenly felt.
It’s the newsagents I’ll miss the most. There are few more reassuring signs of civilisation than a well-stocked newsagent.
The tiny shop next to my local London underground station lays out a trestle table every morning, upon which sits a vast range of papers; the UK nationals, of course, and the local north London papers. And then Irish local and regional papers. The Kerryman, the Anglo-Celt, the Roscommon Herald, the Kilkenny People, the Kildare Nationalist, like Patrick Kavanagh’s barge “bringing from Athy/ And other far-flung towns mythologies.”
Newspapers are enthralling, odd things. The idea that every day a short novel’s worth of text is somehow corralled into print is strange and brilliant. And yet, gather more than two print journalists, even from still-profitable publications, in a room, and talk will soon turn to managed decline of the newspaper industry in Europe and the United States, and how the industry must be more like Buzzfeed, or less like Buzzfeed (it is mandatory to have an opinion on Buzzfeed).
This week, a group journalists gathered in the House of St Barnabas in London’s Soho, to discuss whether or not Britain gets the press it “deserves”. The panel, chaired by Miranda Sawyer of the Bug Consultancy, featured journalists Sophie Heawood and Matt Kelly, and media analyst Douglas McCabe. Heawood, who recently took up the dream gig of The Guardian newspaper’s weekend magazine main column, spoke interestingly about her path into broadsheet journalism via music writing (proving the truth in the advice given to all aspiring writers, Heawood spotted the gap in The Guardian’s coverage of the London grime music scene and inserted herself in it). Heawood, who gave up a column with Vice for her current Guardian slot, pointed out the irony that while we all seem to be grieving for newspapers, she still saw it as a move up in the world to go from new media to old.
McCabe pointed out that while we grieve, lots of people are still going out every day to buy a newspaper. Eventually they may not, but this decline may not happen as soon as we think.
The venue, a candlelit chapel, lent the night a funereal air. Certainly the short speech given by former Daily Mirror features editor Kelly felt a little like a eulogy. Kelly talked about his time as an indentured apprentice on a small Merseyside paper 25 years ago, earning £4,000 a year, of learning the ropes of court reporting, local government, all the dull but necessary things vital to local journalism. He moved to the Liverpool Echo and then the Daily Mirror, where he started on a salary of £42,000 in 1996 (a number that drew gasps from the young audience, which, one suspected, contained quite a few people who were in the apparently common position of being “full-time journalists” who don’t really get paid).
The Scouse journalist recalled glorious times of fully-staffed newsroom where “the budget” was only something politicians needed to manage. He claimed to have had no idea how much money he spent on journalism over the years, but he had spent thousands on keeping undercover reporter Ryan Parry in Buckingham Palace for two months in 2003, a story which sticks in the brain mainly because it’s when we first found out that the Queen keeps her cornflakes in Tupperware. The story was a success: Daily Mirror circulation spiked by 25% for three days after initial publication.
This, Kelly suggested, does not happen anymore: once your story goes out on the web, it’s everywhere. That bounce is lost. But that was not the real concern, he suggested: the real concern was that the route through journalism he took was dead as a model, that young reporters were not learning the basics, and that the metric-measuring web would always lead people to favour clickbait over difficult stories. So do we get the press we deserve? No, suggested Kelly. We get a significantly better press than we deserve. Analytics appeared to show that people only really wanted to read titillation, and for years journalists and editors had kidded themselves that people admired them for their hard-hitting journalism.
This led Kelly to his conclusion: the public doesn’t even deserve the British press. Hacks work hard on genuine stories, and the public doesn’t read them.
It’s a humbling, sobering thought for a trade not known for humility or sobriety. All that work and there you are, utterly unappreciated. Ask the average person not engaged in the media to name a great scoop. They will say Watergate. Ask them for another, and they might say MPs expenses. Ask what papers, or even what journalists were responsible for them, and the people who have seen All The President’s Men might be able to answer.
For most people, journalism and the media are kind of nebulous background noise. In the past, you had some kind of reason why you bought a particular newspaper, even if that reason was just that you always bought that newspaper. Increasingly though, people are barely aware of what publication they’re reading. Ask a recent graduate what site they read every day, or what their preferred news source is, and they will say be more likely to say Twitter than The Guardian. Which is why that publication and others are scrabbling to find new ways to bond with people beyond encouraging the reader going to a shop and buying a newspaper.
This fragmentation brings up the question of whether newspapers will maintain their influential position in society (be that good or bad) and if not, whether this will affect arguments for press freedom as distinguishable from everyday rights and liberties. We witness versions of this question from time to time: when local bloggers are excluded from council meetings because they are not accredited press, even if they are the only people in the area willing and able to cover the proceedings, for example. In the past, papers have been defensive of their position (many journalists can still get a scarcely believable amount of contempt into the word “blogger”) but in the post-Leveson world, in Life After Brian, it’s apparent that there is an interest in ensuring that press freedom and free speech are universal.
Explore the latest issue of Index on Censorship magazine for discussion on the Seeing the future of journalism: Will the public know more? In print, online or on your iPad.
In the aftermath of a murder of a delivery driver and discovery of explosive devices in his van, a small underground group took responsibility, but news editors refused to carry the group’s statement, leading to a print blackout in Manipur.
Newspapers in the state reported on 19 Aug that the cold-blooded killing of Okram Gyanendro had led to a road blockade of the Imphal-Moreh highway in protest. The Imphal-Moreh Road Transporters’ Union and the All Manipur Road Transport Drivers and Motor Workers’ Union strongly condemned the murder and called for a 13 hour general strike across the state as the story gained more attention.
As reported by the Indian Express, in the aftermath of the murder, a small underground group took responsibility for the attack. However, senior editors refused to publish the group’s statement, as they believed this small group could not have carried off the attack and only sought to gain legitimacy through media attention. By August 28th, a letter from the group had been issued to hawkers who distribute newspapers in Manipur, to halt distribution, which was ignored. On September 1st, the All Manipur Newspaper Sales and Distributors Association received a phone call saying that if the hawkers did not stop distributing newspapers, they would be shot dead.
Caught between the ongoing violent rivalry between insurgent groups in Manipur, newspaper distribution was stopped. The All Manipur Journalists’ Union (AMWJU) staged a protest along with the Editors’ Forum and the All Manipur Newspaper Sales and Distribution Association to protest the threats issued to media workers and the freedom of the press in Manipur. Some of the complaints that were made were that insurgent groups force newspapers to carry news, whether it is true or not, and even force them to carry press releases without any changes. The chief minister of Manipur was approached, and asked to put in safety measures for media persons.
However, with the backdrop of the newspaper distribution ban, the editors of major newspapers decided to distribute their papers on their own. On September 7, it was reported that “editors of the leading newspapers published from Imphal created history on Saturday morning by selling their newspaper copies in the streets of Imphal city.”
In the meantime, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has issued a statement of support, stating that, “we call on the state government in Manipur and the security agencies of the Indian government deployed in the state, to respond to the urgent calls from All Manipur Working Journalists Union (AWMJU) that conditions be secured for safeguarding journalists, rights and the public right to know.” And the chairman of India’s Press Council of India also requested the Chief Minister of Manipur to ensure that newspapers can function normally.
By 8th September, hawkers had decided to resume work in Manipur, in light of appeals from various civil society organizations and also for the sake of their livelihood.
Monday (1 April) heralded the return of private daily newspapers to Burma. Since the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act the state has held highly restrictive powers to license newspapers and publishers creating one of the most hostile environments on earth for a free print media. Since the transition period of the past few years began, President Thein Sein has signalled that the government would liberalise restrictions on the media. Prior to the return of daily newspapers, privately-owned weekly journals had begun to flourish as demand for independent news markedly increased. On 1 February this year, the government launched the process to allow the independent media to bid for daily licenses.
Index on Censorship spoke to journalists and proprietors in Burma during a recent mission to the country in March. The return of independent daily newspapers has not been without incident. The government refused to grant licenses for daily publication to a number of publications including the Eleven Media Group, apparently because their application lacked an official revenue stamp valued at 100 kyats ($0.12). This decision was overturned in March and the group will launch its daily newspaper “The Daily Eleven” symbolically on World Press Freedom Day on May 3 according to AP.
Previously news was published in weekly journals that reviewed news and politics and had to submit all their proofs to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) prior to publication (hence weekly publication). According to state journal the New Light of Myanmar, the termination of the PSRD was signed off at the cabinet meeting of 24 January 2013. Though ominously, the report claimed a new “Copyrights and Registration Division” would be formed under the Information and Public Relations Department.
Index on Censorship views the licensing of newspapers as an unwarranted restriction on freedom of the media. The registration process for daily newspapers in Burma has been particularly restrictive with the application requiring a code of practice, a code of ethics and a code of conduct for the publication — even though the Press Council is working on a series of ethical codes for journalists as part of its on-going negotiations to draft a more proportionate press law.
One editor told Index he had applied for a press license on 21 February and had not yet heard of the result by 13 March. The application was over 80 pages in total and the local authorities stated the application needed to be in both Burmese and English. Journalists told Index several questions on the application for a daily newspaper license concerned the previous political activities of the applicant, which raised concerns that political considerations will be taken into account when awarding the limited number of licenses proposed.
Further advances in media freedom are expected in the coming months, with foreign journalists to be given working visas from mid-April (rather than taking the risk of a tourist visa as is the norm now) and the BBC hoping to broadcast its global news channel in Burma later this year. Reporters Without Borders has moved Burma’s ranking in its Press Freedom Index up 18 places to 151 out of 179 countries.
Yet, old habits die hard. On the first day of new daily newspapers, the government kept the independent media at arm’s length from an official state visit by the President of Singapore Tony Tan Keng Yam with only the official state media allowed into the press conference surrounding the trip. A forthcoming Index report into the state of freedom of expression in Burma will examine these trends in further detail.