Parliamentary accountability is being tested in the age of coronavirus

A rise in discrimination and antisemitism has already been recorded in the last weeks.

THE COVID-19 crisis has also led to protests and antisemtism (photo credit: REUTERS)
THE COVID-19 crisis has also led to protests and antisemtism
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The closure of The Canadian Jewish News and the last-minute rescue of The Jewish Chronicle, the world’s oldest Jewish newspaper, show how COVID-19 can impact media enterprises. The severity of the situation is multidimensional and goes beyond pure economic consequences.
Serious journalism – already struggling to survive in the Internet era for years – is encountering a new hurdle. Governmental subsidies to save the press might provide temporary relief but will weaken its watchdog mission.
Fake news, by contrast, continuously gains ground. It is easy and cheap to spread stories or clichés online via social media. People using their computers, tablets or smartphones extensively while staying home can often consume and reproduce them. Uncertainty reinforces the tendency, whereas good journalists are walking the line between survival – both physical and economic – and non-routinized work in covering the pandemic.
A rise in discrimination and antisemitism has already been recorded in the last weeks. Messages of antisemitism are disseminated with the velocity of the virus. Hatred against Jews – as individuals and as a collective entity – goes together with conspiracy theories about the origins of the crisis and hypothetical profits for them. Physical crimes and online hate speech in tandem should alarm the international community.
How can the problem be better addressed in the COVID-19 era? Close collaboration between states, agencies and Jewish communities in monitoring acts of antisemitism, and discussions in committees, for instance, in the relevant European Parliament working group, would be a typical response under normal circumstances. But the exclusive reliance on emails, the organization of digital campaigns and the replacement of face-to-face with virtual meetings, in a phase during which the future of the press remains uncertain, do arguably constitute a reliable alternative.
The concern is placed within the general debate on how democracies are coping with the pandemic. Notwithstanding the necessity of social-distancing measures, they do dramatically influence the modus operandi of Western countries and societies. Parliamentary debates rarely take place, whereas politicians give speeches in empty rooms as a matter of public health without being asked hard questions.
Accountability and transparency are being tested. Procurement of goods and services for the disease management, in particular, can sometimes reveal corrupt practices. The Council of Europe has already published guidelines to prevent risks.
Limited parliamentary scrutiny intensifies talks for virtual settings. Although adjustments depend on the legal framework of each country and questions about the efficiency of the option are raised, some countries, including Australia and the UK, are determined to proceed online. Cybersecurity is a critical parameter, especially when representatives have to vote.
Members of the European Parliament, for example, who are remotely joining sessions, receive to their official email address an electronic ballot form to complete and return with a signature. The appetite of hackers will increase.
Additionally, citizens find fewer opportunities to protest. A recent demonstration in Tel Aviv – with participants two meters apart from each other – has been the only case over the last weeks. People are, of course, able to openly express their views on social media. The usage of smartphones to trace patients and quarantined individuals during the public health crisis is causing unease about governmental usage of personal data, though.
Nostalgia for the pre-COVID-19 days leads nowhere. Democracies need to respond to unprecedented challenges by using and improving digital instruments to build public trust. As no vaccine has been found at this writing, a delay will jeopardize liberal values.
Technological creativity and continuous learning can pave the way for an active democratic participation, more inclusion and crowdsourcing. Opportunities will sideline risks should policy and decision-makers invest time in an online participatory process, including question and answer sessions.
Even in the fight against antisemitism, a toxic element to democracy either offline or online, smart education will be added to the arsenal.
It is a probation period for Western countries requiring patience and a new social contract between governments and citizens that will be largely played out in the Internet sphere. The successful adjustment to the reality will judge their future fate.
The writer is a research associate at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, and a senior associate and lecturer at the European Institute of Nice and the Democritus University of Thrace.