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Coronavirus: Our lives depend on a free press

COVID-19 isn’t just a health story. It’s a press freedom story, in the U.S. and the world.

"A healthy society should not have just one voice." — Dr. Li Wenliang , persecuted by the Chinese government after warning about the coronavirus. Dr. Li died on February 7.

When all this started, the coronavirus was a local news story.

Dr. Li Wenliang sounded the alarm just as the virus was just spreading from a local market through one city, Wuhan. Government officials tried to silence him. Officials censored local news, then national news as the sickness spread through China and beyond. Weeks were lost; actions not taken, as Covid-19 spread.

If local media coverage had not been suppressed, governments around the globe could have prepared for the pandemic weeks earlier. The economic cost might be lessened. Fewer people might be dead and dying now.

Today is World Press Freedom Day.

This year, it falls as COVID-19 has killed more than 240,000 people, sickened at least 3.4 million and disrupted lives around the globe.

As we mourn our losses, let's also mark and remember Dr. Li's words.

We need uncensored doctors and scientists who are free to speak.

Like what you're reading? Support high-quality local journalism and help underwrite independent news without the spin.

We need health journalists who keep us forewarned and forearmed.

We in the U.S. must fight for the same kind of reporting stifled in China. We can't just point a finger at Chinese censorship. Many American officials are trying to bar health experts from informing the public or prevent the media from reporting public health issues.

  • In March, the White House ordered health officials to treat top-level coronavirus meetings as classified, a move that hampered government response, administration officials told Reuters. Just this week the administration ousted the Department of Health and Human Services watchdog who disclosed medical supply shortages as Covid-19 cases surged.
  • In Pennsylvania, the government used a secret process to decide which small businesses could get shutdown waivers and keep operating during the coronavirus shutdown. Which businesses get this chance to survive? That's a secret, too. 
  • Many governments are using the crisis to expand secrecy in general, stopping the public from accessing public information of all types. Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Hawaii and the District of Columbia, as well as federal agencies including the FBI, are delaying, suspending or denying access to public records, citing the pandemic, the Investigative Reporting Workshop reports. As David Cuillier, president of the National Freedom of Information Coalition, has noted, government secrecy like this affects our businesses and economy as well as our individual rights. So it's particularly chilling as the country tries to figure out a recovery.

The need for free and fearless health reporting is clear.

So on this World Press Freedom Day, let's remember Dr. Li's words.

And let's get behind the strong reporters who lift many voices and provide free and fearless reporting on health and the crisis around it now. Please join us in supporting their work.

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Sue Cross is the executive director of the Institute for Nonprofit News.

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