Infodemic: Middle East Covid-19 diplomacy; Orban’s press intimidation; trouble in Bolivia
Welcome back to Coda’s Infodemic and thank you for joining us! We are tracking how global disinformation is shaping the world that is emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown. Before we dive in:
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Now, from Bolivia to Hungary, here are a few narratives — both real and fake — that have grabbed our attention and deserve yours.
Today’s Infodemic is brought to you by Coda’s Katia Patin.
In the Middle East, the pandemic is still being used as a diplomatic tool:
- Yesterday, despite itself having the highest per capita infection rate in the world, Qatar sent a plane full of medical aid to Belarus
- The biggest news, though, came when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel and the United Arab Emirates would be working in partnership to combat Covid-19. Trumpeting the plan, he said, “Our ability to work against the corona pandemic can also serve the entire region”
- The UAE — which has no formal diplomatic relations with Israel, but has been pursuing an agenda of normalization for years — issued a more guarded statement, making no mention of state cooperation. It did, however, confirm that an agreement had been reached between two private Emirati companies and two Israeli businesses to develop technology to fight Covid-19
Meanwhile: Netanyahu has sworn to annex parts of the Palestinian West Bank, possibly by July 1, a move many nations have decried as a breach of international law.
Chinese journalist Zhang Zhan was one of the few sources of uncensored information coming out of Wuhan in the early days of the pandemic. Now, she’s been officially arrested and charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble,” a crime that carries up to five years in prison. Zhang went missing on May 14, the fourth journalist to disappear while covering the unfolding situation in the city. She later resurfaced in a detention center in Shanghai and, last week, was officially charged. Zhang’s father, interviewed by the South China Morning Post on Wednesday, was pessimistic about the power of journalists to fight China’s state narrative, saying it was like “crushing eggs against rocks.”
In Canada, a fake contact-tracing app, masquerading as the official version now being rolled out nationwide, is targeting users and holding their data to ransom. Promoted on websites designed to look like government ones, the bogus app downloads a program called CryCryptor to a user’s phone, encrypts their files and demands payment to unlock them. A number of the fraudulent sites have been taken down.
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What We Are Following:
This week I’ve been closely tracking updates from Hungary’s largest online news organization, Index.hu, which says its independence is under threat, following changes to its management. Vocally critical and a frequent target of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the site announced that it has come under “such external pressure that it could spell out the end of our editorial staff as we know it.” On Tuesday, CEO Andras Pusztay stepped down.
Background: Index.hu is one of the few independent news outlets still standing in Hungary, after a takeover that has brought nearly 80% of Hungarian media under the control of the state, or childhood friends and allies of Orban. Using the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext, the Hungarian parliament further restricted the media this spring by introducing a five-year jail sentence for those found guilty of spreading “false” or “distorted” information about the pandemic.
Why this matters: Index.hu has weathered some of the most dramatic shake-ups in Hungarian media, continuing to publish investigations about the government, even as reporters faced criminal charges. A takeover would be a heavy blow to independent reporting. I’m a daily reader of Index.hu and its work often appears in this newsletter.
Covid-19 has served as an excuse to clamp down on free speech and political opposition across the world. Below, Gautama Mehta reports on developments in Bolivia, so keep reading.
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OPPOSITION MEMBERS DETAINED IN BOLIVIA ᛫ Gautama Mehta
Earlier this week, three opposition members in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba were arrested on charges of sedition and terrorism for their alleged participation in a protest demanding that interim leader Jeanine Añez step down. Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, told me they were detained by plainclothes officers, while delivering medical supplies and food to the northern Chapare province — a region that has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic.
One of the three people arrested, Lucy Escobar, is a senatorial candidate in the general election, scheduled for this fall. She is a member of MAS, whose leader Evo Morales was forced out of presidential office last November, in what has been widely condemned as a military coup.
Ledebur added that the three alleged protest organizers disappeared for 12 hours following their arrest on Tuesday, during which time their whereabouts were unknown to their lawyer. It later emerged that they had been taken to the capital, 145 miles away, for processing.
“These trumped-up charges and their illegal transfer to La Paz, out of jurisdiction, represent another example of political persecution and repression from the Añez government,” Ledebur said.
Why this matters: Añez has been accused of using Covid-19 as an excuse to stay in power by delaying upcoming elections, which she is not expected to win. To critics, the arrest of an opposition candidate is a clear escalation.
Her government has been mired in scandal since the start of the pandemic, during which more than 28,000 Bolivians have been infected. In May, the nation’s health minister was arrested on corruption charges related to the purchase of substandard ventilators.
And many thanks for reading. Coda’s Sasha Tyan, Isobel Cockerell and Dave Stelfox have contributed to this newsletter. Finally, don’t miss this clip from Brazil where the head of the tourism agency plays Ave Maria on the accordion per President Bolsonaro’s request.