Press mobility in Aruba restricted during pandemic coverage

Journalists and media excluded from exceptions during the curfew.

Miami (March 23, 2020) .- The regional vice president of the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) in Aruba, Marko Espinoza, of, denounced that the imposition of the curfew in the country to counter the COVID-19 spread did not consider journalists and media as essential service providers, prohibiting them from mobilizing to cover the pandemic.

Espinoza's report:

Oranjestad. "On Thursday March 19 the Prime Minister of Aruba, Evelyn Wever-Croes, announced a nationwide curfew. From 21.00 to 6.00 no one is allowed to be outside in the open. First responders and other state-employed personnel are exempted. Also, people who have an essential job and have a signed permission are allowed to be outside during the curfew. However, during a press conference on Friday March 20, 2020, Prime Minister Evelyn Wever-Croes said members of the press were not allowed to be outside, as they were not exempted from the curfew. Their jobs were deemed non-essential.

On Saturday March 21, 2020, press members formed a committee and demanded a meeting with the Prime Minister regarding this situation. Members of the press waited an hour outside the closed-door Government press conference organized by the Prime Minister. When she left the press conference, she spoke to the press committee for less than 2 minutes.

During this short time, she again said that the press is a non-essential profession and they needed to obey the curfew because she did not want to have people aimlessly outside during the curfew. Members of the press committee handed her a letter of protest in which they urged her to meet with them to address their concerns. The press members also took the opportunity to announce that they would not follow the government press conferences nor ask questions regarding the ongoing crisis until the Prime Minister honored a meeting with them.

During this encounter, a reporter of NTR/Caribisch Netwerk told the Prime Minister that she would move freely during the curfew because she needs to exercise her work as a reporter and cover the news. The Prime Minister ended the brief encounter by telling the press members that she was too tired to deal with the press that night. Later in the evening, the government's press office released a statement condemning the press, accusing them of challenging and neglecting to obey the curfew and offending the prime minister. The government statement was written in such a way as to persuade the public opinion on their favor and incite anger and hatred in the community towards the press. This was done by alleging that the press does not take the coronavirus crisis seriously. The Prime Minister also condemned the whole press by exaggerating the behavior of the one press member who had remark they needed to go out during the curfew to do their job.

On Sunday, March 22, 2020, the press waited for a meeting with the prime minister. The Prime Minister refused to meet with the press personally and sent a private consultant and a PR official on her behalf. They put one option on the table: form a press pool whose members would only mobilize around the island in a police car during the curfew. The idea was absolutely rejected by the press committee. The main reason being that the police would be dictating where the press can and cannot move. This means the police, which is a governmental body, would dictate what the press member can and cannot witness and report on. Later that night, during the Sunday night curfew, journalist Sharina Henriquez of Caribisch Netwerk was detained by the police on her way home after doing a report on how stranded tourist are coping with the curfew. She was detained for about 2 hours and fined 1000 florins (500 USD) while doing her job as a reporter.

On Monday, March 23, the Prime Minister answered the press committee's memo in letter. There she stated her disappointment with the press and implied the press did not want to avoid the spread of the COVID-19 causing virus. She argued that the press did this by not adhering to the curfew.

These actions on the government's side and the position of the Aruban press seems to point that there is no common ground to find a solution. The Dutch Second Chamber (equivalent to a Parliament) was moved to asked questions to Minister of Interior and Kingdom Relations, Raymond Knops regarding the press freedom situation in Aruba. The Dutch Press Association (NVJ) also sent a letter to government of Aruba imploring better judgment and to reconsider the way in which the situation is handled. They also suggested ways to resolve the issue by giving major news-outlets emergency press-badges to ensure their professional capacity.

The press freedom is guaranteed under article 1.12 of the Aruba Constitution (Staatsregeling van Aruba) and under international law (art. 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). However, the government of Aruba once again acts to undermine the press on the island.

It does so by not recognizing the essential role the members of the press play in crisis such as these. People need information from an unbiased source. If all communication goes through the state press, it can give rise to speculation and mistrusts. This is exactly why the press needs to be able to continue to do its job. Together with other essential members of society the press can keep an eye for instances where the curfew is not being followed. It can also have an unbiased look at how the curfew is implemented. After all, the curfew is a measure that greatly restricts the freedom of citizens and cannot be used with abandon. The press is not an enemy of the government but an ally and in a moment of crisis such as this were we all are facing the same invisible enemy we need to work together and ensure all of us can do our jobs to the best of our abilities.

On March 20, in a letter sent to the Prime Minister by IAPA President Christopher Barnes and the President of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Roberto Rock, the organization urged her to reconsider the measure and allow media and journalists work without restrictions.

IAPA officials stressed that: "We share your view that the safety of your citizens -our members- is paramount, however, in exceptional situations such as the one caused by this pandemic, the media and journalists, not dissimilar to your health authorities and security forces, fulfill the vital role of providing essential services to Aruba's citizens by reporting on and sharing information in the public's interest".