- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2020

An anti-corruption group is organizing a global coalition of like-minded organizations to defend whistleblowers during the coronavirus crisis.

Open-government advocates say the spread of accurate information about coronavirus coverage is threatened by governments in countries such as India, Niger and Venezuela that have arrested and assaulted reporters for their coronavirus coverage.

Transparency International’s coalition includes dozens of groups, including the International Bar Association and Transparency International’s affiliates in Australia, Estonia, Greece and Ireland. Together, they are calling for governments to protect whistleblowers and urging the public to be watchdogs for whistleblowers amid restrictions on freedom around the world that political leaders are deeming necessary to combat the coronavirus crisis.

“When decisions are taken in emergency conditions, often away from democratic scrutiny, whistleblowers can play a vital early warning role,” the coalition wrote. “They are the corrective fail-safe mechanism in any society, especially in an international health crisis when the public’s right to know can have life-or-death implications. In this time of crisis and beyond, we encourage citizens and workers to participate in ensuring that proper accountability is maintained in our governments, corporate institutions and markets, and in defending the human rights and freedoms of all people.”

Information from whistleblowers has become more crucial as governments have cracked down on reporters during the coronavirus outbreak. The Committee to Protect Journalists is tracking how countries’ response to coronavirus has affected the press and it has found several concerning developments.

Last month, the group said India and Niger had arrested reporters covering coronavirus and police in India assaulted reporters. Thailand declared a state of emergency that gave the government greater control over the media, and Jordan, Oman, Morocco, and Yemen suspended newspaper printing and distribution.

In the U.S, the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University reported that state, local, and federal officials are keeping information from public scrutiny. The lab pointed to legislation from the D.C. Council that allows public officials to delay their responses to public records’ requests.

China’s apparent efforts to spread disinformation about the coronavirus’ origination and outbreak are well-documented, but its efforts to block the spread of information has included crowding out negative news with pro-China information.

George Mason University’s Weifeng Zhong, a researcher using artificial intelligence to predict the Chinese government’s behavior, said the coronavirus outbreak may make the communist regime more authoritarian than previously imagined.

Mr. Zhong created a machine-learning algorithm reading Chinese propaganda in the aftermath of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, and he sees more bad news on the horizon.

“We are currently developing the [tool] to gauge how bad the coronavirus outbreak really was by comparing how [the Chinese regime] talk[s] about it in words, in the Chinese newspaper, versus how they used to talk about the SARS outbreak back in 2003,” Mr. Zhong said. “And the motivation behind it is that we all know that the numbers, the official numbers coming out from China are not reliable but how unreliable they really are is quantitatively very hard to answer.”

While Mr. Zhong is not ready to make predictions, he thinks China may be gearing up for more authoritarianism and less freedom after the outbreak recedes.

• Ryan Lovelace can be reached at rlovelace@washingtontimes.com.

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