Freedom of Expression and Information in the Coronavirus Era
As 1/3 of the global population faces some form of lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus, Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has issued a statement reiterating the ‘imperative of respect for civil and political rights…an emergency situation is not a blank check to disregard human rights obligations’. This came as a worrying number of leaders appear to be using the pandemic as a pretext for granting increasingly unlimited ‘emergency powers’ to themselves.
Article 19(b) of the ICCPR, Article 10(2) of the ECHR and Article 13(b) of the ACHR all allow restrictions on the freedom of expression for the protection of public health. However, an increasing number of states are severely limiting or entirely revoking legal protection for freedom of expression in a manner disproportionate, unjustified and unnecessary to adequately deal with the Covid-19 crisis.
The restrictions and their impact
In Cambodia, the State of Emergency Law grants the power to ban or restrict the “distribution of information that could scare the public, cause unrest, or that can negatively impact national security, or that can cause confusion in response to the state of emergency” and to conduct surveillance on telecommunication mediums “using any means necessary”. Journalists in Hungary now face up to 5 years in prison for spreading “false” or “distorted” information about the government and the virus, after a law was passed which allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree. A radical step was taken when declaring a state of emergency in Honduras: the Government revoked of Article 72 of the constitution, which protects the right to free expression without censorship. Similar policies can be found across the world, including in Armenia, South Africa, Romania, Thailand and Brazil .
Even where free speech has not been expressly curtailed, state control of statistics could amount to an infringement on freedom of information. On 17 April Wuhan raised its official Covid-19 death toll by 50% as a result of “statistical verification”, but this comes amidst suspicions over the handling of the outbreak in China.
These restrictions are already visibly undermining the safety of reporters and the transparency of information surrounding the crisis. Human Rights Watch has documented 17 arrests between late January and late March related to sharing information about the coronavirus in Cambodia. This includes the arrest of journalist Sovann Rithy for quoting a recent speech by Prime Minister Hun Sen about Covid-19. The International Forum for Human Rights in Honduras has reported attacks against at least 45 human rights defenders and 7 journalists as of April 7. In Thailand, a 42-year-old artist was arrested and charged after he posted on Facebook that there was no screening for the virus at Suvarnabhumi Airport.
There is also a wider chilling effect occurring: in Hungary, the Guardian has reported that journalists were being threatened into not following up on tip-offs about coronavirus cases in schools and amongst doctors.
These measures are even more worrying for the long-term human rights records of such states. As UN Special Rapporteur Fionnuala Ní Aoláin explains, such powers “offer shortcuts” and so tend to “persist and become permanent”. MLDI has noted this in other crises: in Egypt authorities have continuously extended the state of emergency declared in 2017 with harmful implications for human rights.
The importance of freedom of information during a pandemic
Reliable information is crucial to reduce the infection rate by increasing knowledge about the core symptoms and preventative measures such as hand-washing and social distancing. Downplaying the severity of the virus or outright rejecting its existence denies people information they need to keep themselves safe, even if their government is not taking the appropriate steps. In this vain, the UN has recently called on governments to ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible internet connection.
Further, investigative and critical journalism is key at a time where even in liberal democracies, due to time and social distancing concerns, there is limited opportunity for democratic scrutiny of executive action. Journalists are the key actors holding the Government to account over the efficacy, legitimacy and hardship caused by the drastic measures being implemented globally.
The global pandemic is unprecedented and nation states are having to rapidly restrict civil liberties to save lives. However, this is no excuse for failing to consider the human rights implications of such far-reaching decisions, let alone a pretext to for regimes to tighten control over their populations indefinitely.