Rights and Humanity: Journalism’s Response to Viral Hate

Aidan White,
founder of the Ethical Journalism Network

Podgorica, Apri 19,l 2020 - It may be the biggest news story of their lives, but journalists face multiple challenges when reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic.
News media must provide readers with up-to-date information in a tone that neither terrifies the public nor downplays the severity of the crisis. They must apply care and sensitivity and, in particular, they must stick to the facts, while respecting the human rights of all.
That’s not easy when governments are trampling over well-established rights to impose lockdowns, social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
In Montenegro on March 22, for example, the government broke with the principle of anonymity for people caught up in a health epidemic. They published a list of names of those of those who had recently been in countries where there had been outbreaks of Covind-19 or who had contact with people infected by the coronavirus and had been told to go into self-isolation.
The names on the government website were grouped by locality, allowing people to check on potential cases in their area. The information included start and end dates of isolation, presumably so that people can snoop on neighbours who may break quarantine rules.
However, the decision sparked outrage among civil liberty advocates and political activists and some media, such as Vijesti, refused to carry the government’s list of people in mandatory self-isolation.
Opponents say there is no legal basis for the public disclosure of personal health data on the internet and, more importantly, that it's unacceptable to publicly stigmatise people who have not broken the law. But despite these protests the government continued to publish lists of people in quarantine.
In reporting this controversy, news media should be the first to remember that the targeting of vulnerable groups creates stigma and fear and may hamper the public response to communicable diseases.
In the 1980s, for example, coverage of the HIV/AIDS health crisis led to a global panic over a disease that appeared to target specific groups in society. Some people from sexual and ethnic minorities felt the sting of media bias in much of the tabloid journalism of the time. Many were prevented from accessing health care and insurance, getting jobs, and attending school.
The key task of news media is to accurately inform the public while holding governments to account. People expect to be told the truth at moments of crisis and they tend to accept without question the advice of policymakers, particularly when they say they are following the science.
But when the science is uncertain and when policy responses are so different from country to country, journalists have a responsibility to scrutinise in detail the actions of government and the authorities.
To do that with confidence, journalists need to know what they are talking about. Reporters and editors need to be to be proactive in learning the basics about the virus, from the complexities of epidemiology to helping people understand medical jargon.
Media also have to counter widespread circulation of false stories and to debunk weird conspiracy theories – such as the absurd claim that 5G communications technology is a virus spreader.
Politically-charged disinformation is also a threat. According to The Guardian, the European Union’s diplomatic service collected 80 examples of disinformation from Russian sources in two months up to 16 March. Coronavirus was said to be a biological weapon deployed by China, the US or the UK. Other conspiracy theories suggested the outbreak was caused by migrants or was a pure hoax.
Journalists have a duty to debunk toxic information wherever it comes from. Even from the top. One reason for the surge in hate-speech around the health crisis is the reckless behaviour of political leaders who look for scapegoats. Some stoke anti-Chinese sentiment, such as Donald Trump with his infamous reference to the coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus”. Others target foreigners or migrants. For example, Victor Orban in Hungary and Matteo Salvini in Italy have seized on the pandemic to stoke xenophobic sentiment.
Since January 2020, human rights groups have reported alarming incidents of hate crimes, apparently linked to Covid-19, in the UK, the USSpain, and Italy, among other countries, targeting people of Asian descent.
These developments highlight why news media must avoid the trap of using criminalising or dehumanising terminology.
Media also have to recognise that although the Covid-19 story appears to be without prejudice – it theoretically targets anyone, including the British Prime Minister – in fact, it disproportionately affects vulnerable communities. In the United States, for example, the black community is harder hit and early research in Europe also shows that non-white, poorer groups suffer more.
Thoughtless reporting can reinforce stigma, undermine the scope for solidarity, and potentially fuel wider reluctance to seek treatment or attend screening. All of this underlines the need for careful, informed and sensitive journalism and for public policy that does not divide society.
Given these developments it is no surprise that in Montenegro and elsewhere privacy groups are ringing alarm bells. They worry about the potential for the growth of high-powered surveillance systems under government control which could remain in place after the Covid-19 crisis has passed. They are nervous that free-speech rights are also under fire.
But defending human rights, such as freedom of movement, free expression and the individual’s right to privacy, is not so straightforward, particularly in the face of a public health emergency on this scale.
Even rights groups like Human Rights Watch recognise that the scale and severity of the Covid-19 pandemic has risen to the level of a public health threat that can justify restrictions on certain rights, such as those that result from the imposition of quarantine or isolation.
Most people readily accept that robust tracing of potential virus carriers is essential and telecommunications data has already helped governments around the world pin down potential coronavirus cases.
In recent weeks both Google and Facebook have been sharing location-tracking information with authorities around the world in order to help them plan their Covid-19 containment strategies.
The data is detailed, but anonymous, without any personal identifying markers, but it does track people's movements. Google has made available its Mobility Reports, for example, to 131 countries and regions. These show foot traffic trends at different locations over time.
Other national responses have included sophisticated tracking of infected people. South Korea, for example, developed an app which alerted users to when they were entering an area where a case of infection had been reported.  
All of this helps public health officials get a better understanding of whether people are adhering to stay at home orders. If, for example, the data shows more people leaving their homes in a certain area, and this leads to a subsequent rise in Covid-19 infections, the authorities can use that information to map future actions, so they can enforce movement restrictions, or ensure local hospitals are equipped to prepare for a likely rise in cases. This is achieved without naming the victims of infection.
At a time of national emergency, all of this appears reasonable, good governance in pursuit of a common good, but it is not without potentially dangerous side effects.
On March 23 the New York Times said that the aftermath of the 2001 9/11terrorist attacks illustrated how once privacy back doors have been opened, it can be very difficult to close them again. Nearly two decades after 9/11, they say, police and security services in the US have access to laws and higher-powered technologies that can be used to further political agendas like anti-immigration policies.
While there's clearly value in providing this level of data tracking, we need to recognise the threat of new and significant infringements on people's rights. Even in countries with high levels of accountability weakening civil liberties can lead to over-zealous policing and have a chilling effect on fundamental rights.
There is now a genuine concern that when the epidemic has passed, countries with an authoritarian reputation, like China, will want to maintain close surveillance of their citizens, and not just for reasons of public health.
The implications of this stretch well beyond the current crisis, and open up new debates about personal data privacy and how that information can be used and who has access to it.
The priority should be to ensure that personal information is anonymised and legal changes that limit civil liberties need to be temporary and clearly defined.
For news media it may also be time to rethink how we engage with the public. Until now most media have allowed people to comment freely on news reports, but in the age of coronavirus we need to avoid the information space being polluted by toxic comments and hate-speech.  
Pre-moderation of social media comments or even temporary barring of comments is essential to guard against exposure and stigmatising of individuals. This is time-consuming and costly, but it recognises that free expression is not just about the right to say what you want, it is also about protecting vulnerable and fearful communities from harmful speech.  

Careful attention to human rights such as privacy rights, non-discrimination and respect for human dignity can foster an effective response amidst the turmoil and disruption that inevitably results in times of crisis.


This article was written and published as a part of  project realized by the Montenegro Media Institute with the support of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office of the United Kingdom, through the British Embassy in Podgorica, and with support of the National Endowment for Democracy, USA.The  Montenegro Media Institute and the author are solely responsible for the content of this report and in no way it reflects the views of the donors.