Unpacking Authoritarian Propaganda on the Coronavirus

In the fourth edition of Freedom House’s weekly newsletter, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic, we examine how authoritarian states have sought to turn the COVID-19 crisis into a propaganda victory.


By Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research

This is the fourth issue of our newsletter on democracy and the coronavirus, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic.

Special Features:

This week, two different pieces unpack the propaganda campaigns that authoritarian states have rolled out to exploit the health crisis. Senior Program Manager Alessandra Pinna examines how Italy became the recipient of instrumentalized medical aid from China, Russia, and Cuba, whose efforts to show up their democratic rivals have proven to be both misleading and self-serving. And Senior Research Analyst Sarah Cook lays out the information tactics behind the Chinese Communist Party’s bid to turn the disaster of its early coronavirus response into a propaganda victory, at home and abroad.

Chengdu, Sichuan / China - January 30, 2019: a screen at shopping district showing the broadcaster wearing a mask to host a news show regarding coronavirus.
A screen at shopping district in Cengdhu, China shows a broadcaster wearing a mask during a news segment about the coronavirus pandemic. Editorial credit: B.Zhou /

Here are some of the other key stories we are watching around the world:

  • In Poland, the government has sought to plow ahead with a presidential election scheduled to take place less than three weeks from now, despite widespread doubts that the country is prepared for either safe in-person voting or postal balloting. The governing Law and Justice (PiS) party is hoping to secure a new term for incumbent Andrzej Duda, but given the resistance to an imminent election even within its ruling coalition, there is now talk of simply extending Duda’s term by two years.
  • In Turkey, the mayors of Istanbul and Ankara—both members of the main opposition party—are reportedly under criminal investigation for fundraising campaigns that aimed to bolster municipal resources for the fight against COVID-19. The national government called the campaigns illegal without approval from centrally appointed regional governors.
  • Police and the military in Nigeria have killed at least 18 people so far while enforcing restrictions on movement, according to the country’s human rights ombudsman. As of Thursday, this was more deaths than had been attributed to the coronavirus itself in the country.
  • After being absent from the public eye for more than a month, President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua gave a speech last Wednesday in which he praised the country’s coronavirus response. Nicaragua has refused to impose social-distancing measures and is reporting a vanishingly small number of cases, leading to suspicions that the government is covering up a serious epidemic.
  • Russia’s media regulator required the removal of an article in the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta on coronavirus measures in Chechnya after the leader of the republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, made violent threats against the article’s author, Elena Milashina.
  • As Global Voices reports, Jordan, Oman, Yemen, and the United Arab Emirates have completely prohibited the distribution of print newspapers on the grounds that they could spread disease, despite any evidence to support that claim. The bans could be the final blow for an already fragile industry.

Heroes: Journalists

Our heroes for this week are the journalists around the world who have continued working to get the story out, often at high personal risk—and not just from the virus. Journalists in various countries have been arrested and attacked, had their outlets blocked, and been threatened with imprisonment under new or existing laws that criminalize the publication of “false information.” Even in the United States, with its strong legal safeguards for press freedom, journalists face extreme rhetorical attacks from a hostile presidential administration, as well as exclusion from important briefings by some state governors. Meanwhile, photojournalists in particular have been forced to improvise self-protection measures in order to bring us images from the front lines of the pandemic. This is all in the context of devastating revenue losses for the media sector, as many businesses that would normally buy advertisements have closed their doors under lockdown orders.

So for this week, thank a journalist, and better yet, buy a newspaper subscription.

That’s all for now. Stay safe, and stay free.


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