Coronavirus round-up: authoritarian governments flex their muscles, paywalls on vital news, and different types of misinfo

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Edited by Marco Nurra

The 2020 International Journalism Festival #ijf20 has been cancelled

Hungary to consider bill that would allow Orbán to rule by decree, without a clear cut-off date. The bill seeks to extend the state of emergency declared earlier this month over coronavirus, and could also see people jailed for spreading information deemed to be fake news. The government has portrayed the move as a necessary response to the unprecedented challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, but critics immediately labelled the legislation as dangerously open-ended and vulnerable to abuse.

Philippines COVID-19 state of emergency includes prison time for spreading ‘false news’. The Philippine Congress, on March 24, gave President Rodrigo Duterte broad emergency powers to contain the COVID-19. One provision imposes criminal penalties for “spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms.” Duterte has previously accused independent outlets covering his administration of publishing “fake news,” as CPJ has documented. “Journalists serve a vital role in keeping the public informed during health emergencies. They should be allowed to do so without fear of hefty fines and jail time,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative.

Egypt forces Guardian journalist to leave after coronavirus story. On Sunday 15 March, Ruth Michaelson, who has lived in and reported from Egypt since 2014, had reported on research by infectious disease specialists from the University of Toronto as well as public health data and news stories that pointed to Egypt having a higher rate of coronavirus cases than the number confirmed by the government. She cited a study accepted for publication in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal, which had analysed flight records, traveller data and infection rates to estimate that Egypt could have had 19,310 coronavirus cases by early March, with the lower end of the range about 6,000 cases. The Egyptian government’s official count at the time period covered by the data was that three people were infected.

Brazil restricts access to government information amid COVID-19 emergency. On March 23, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed Provisional Measure 928, which suspends deadlines for public authorities and institutions to respond to requests for information submitted under the country’s freedom of information legislation, and forbids appeals in cases of denied requests.

The news media sounded the alarm on coronavirus for months — but few listened. Why? Even as entire states — like California and New York — shut down, many Americans still don’t believe that the coronavirus is as big a deal as the news media has made it out to be. A poll conducted in mid-March found that only 56 percent of Americans consider the coronavirus a “real threat,” and that 38 percent believe that it has been “blown out of proportion.”

Journalism and coronavirus: the challenge for the news media. “Even with 9/11, the Iraq War or the financial crisis there was not this relentless focus on one comprehensive agenda-dominating story. It is highly unusual as a subject. It is massive, complex and uncertain. It keeps changing and there are loads we don’t know or can’t predict. That goes against the professional expectations of what journalists want to do. It is also contrary to what the public expects from the news media: ‘tell us the truth, give us the facts, hold power to account!’,” writes Charlie Beckett.

How lessons from covering a bombing and a tornado will help you cover a pandemic. Ziva Branstetter covered the OKC bombing, the Joplin tornado and a botched execution in Oklahoma. Now she’s helping direct coronavirus coverage.

Do news sites have an ethical duty to remove paywalls on coronavirus coverage? “Journalism is a public service. Is it more like critical health care or food? If you show up at the hospital, they treat you, then figure out how to recoup the cost. If you go to the grocery store, you are still expected to pay for your food. During normal times, news is more like food, you can get it in lots of places and the quality may depend on what you’re willing to pay. But in times of crisis, information becomes more akin to emergency room care. As a critical public service, journalists have to do something to make their information accessible to those who might not be able to pay. If all of your content is behind a paywall and you do none of these, you’re going to have a hard time making the case that your news is vital to well-being. A swift-moving global pandemic means people need information updates from a local news provider daily, if not hourly, so they can make personal decisions about how to respond, including what to do if they get sick,” argues Kelly McBride, the chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership.

How to consume news during the coronavirus pandemic. Poynter’s guide to reading, watching and listening to news, and how to stay informed while managing your stress levels and avoiding misinformation.

The 6 types of coronavirus misinformation to watch out for. The comparisons between how the coronavirus spread and the tidal wave of rumours and fakes which followed in its wake have been made repeatedly in recent months, but only because they are so accurate. In many countries, the misinformation has preceded the virus itself. The WHO declared an “infodemic” weeks before it declared a pandemic, and the response to both has often been similarly lacking. Six distinct types of misinformation are emerging. They follow the same infectious pattern as the virus itself and escalate in sequence with confirmed cases in each country, like a shadow of rumours, an outrider to events before reality hits.