In March this year, Egyptian activist Sanaa Seif was sentenced to a year and a half in prison for “spreading lies” and “insulting” an agent. He had posted comments relating to people crammed into Egypt’s prisons amid the spread of COVID-19. In China, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, who traveled to Wuhan in February 2020 to report on the coronavirus outbreak, was detained by police, charged with “sparking fights and creating problems” and sentenced to four years in jail.
Their cases are collected in the report Silencing and Disinformation: Freedom of Expression, Endangered During the COVID-19 Pandemic, published this Tuesday by Amnesty International (AI), which denounces that the right to freedom of expression has been attacked around the world in the context of the coronavirus, which has “aggravated the dangers of the public health crisis.”RELATED
The specialized organization criticizes that instead of promoting freedom of expression – considered key to demanding accountability for government responses and raising awareness about health risks – the authorities have restricted it. “Governments have hindered the development of activities such as journalism and the exchange of opinions, and have used the pandemic as an excuse to silence critical voices.”
According to the document, some countries have used laws and other measures to restrict human rights “beyond what international law allows”, under the pretext of protecting public health, curbing the spread of disinformation and ” avoid panic. ” The specialized NGO denounces that for governments that have been maintaining strict control over this right for a long time, the pandemic has become “another excuse to use the laws with the aim of censoring and silencing criticism, debate and the exchange of information”.
Other governments, AI exemplifies, “have used the widespread alarm and confusion” caused by the health crisis to step on the accelerator in the approval of new legislation and other emergency measures “that are not only disproportionate, but ineffective in dealing with problems like misinformation. ”
In addition, the entity recalls, communication channels have been restricted on some occasions —for example, through censorship of social networks, the cutting off of Internet access and the closure of communications media— “as a mechanism to control and punish to certain groups and voices, and other times coinciding with delicate moments “, such as before and after elections. “This has undermined independent and public interest journalism and deprived the public of access to key information about COVID-19, which is essential for people to educate themselves on health issues and refute rumors and misinformation.” .
“In the midst of a pandemic, journalists and health professionals have been silenced and imprisoned. The consequence is that people have not been able to access information about COVID-19, including information that could help protect themselves and their communities. Approximately five million people have lost their lives as a result of COVID-19, and the lack of information has probably been a contributing factor, ”says Rajat Khosla, director general of Research, Advocacy and Policy of AI.
AI highlights the case of China, which already had a long history of controlling freedom of expression, as the report states. The organization recalls that in December 2019, there were health professionals and journalists who tried to sound the alarm, but “the Government put them in the spotlight for reporting” on the outbreak of what was then an unknown disease . As of February 21, 2020, 5,511 criminal investigations had been opened against people who had published information about the epidemic for “deliberately inventing and spreading false and harmful information” in China.
There is also Thailand, where the authorities, to “further control the public debate”, invoked a decree that allows censoring or editing the information they consider false or distorted, which carries a sentence of up to two years in prison. The NGO also collects the cases of Indonesia, Uzbekistan, Cuba, Uganda as well as several Gulf countries, such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates, which have been interrogating, detaining, prosecuting and putting in jail those who post negative comments about the government, something that has continued for the last year, but with the protection of public health as justification, AI denounces.
Among the countries that have introduced laws that restrict the right to freedom of expression and silence dissenting voices in the context of the pandemic or under this pretext are Tanzania, Russia, Nicaragua and the Philippines.
The Tanzanian government, the report recalls, took a denial stance on COVID-19. Between March and May 2020, the authorities used laws that prohibited and penalized disinformation and used other measures to restrict media coverage of the COVID-19 management by the Executive. In Nicaragua, according to AI, the authorities used the pandemic a year ago to introduce the Special Cybercrime Law, “which in practice allows the authorities to punish those who criticize government policies and grants them broad powers to suppress freedom of expression.” says Amnesty International.
Russia, in March 2020, expanded its legislation and introduced criminal penalties for the “public dissemination of deliberately false information” in the context of emergency situations. “While these reforms were said to be part of the official response to COVID-19, these are measures that will remain in effect after the pandemic ends.” That month, the Philippines also enacted a law granting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte “special powers to deal with the pandemic and included a provision that punished the ‘creation, perpetuation or dissemination of false information’ with up to two months in prison,” fines. or both.
The document also reviews the new measures promoted in Cambodia, Malaysia, South Africa, Botswana, Morocco or Serbia, where the Government, says AI, “decided to centralize all information on the pandemic and made journalists could be prosecuted if they used information that was not was approved by the government or taken from ‘unofficial sources’. In Brazil, the organization fears that a bill against disinformation will inflict further damage, if passed, to the rights to freedom of expression and privacy and exclude millions of Brazilians from Internet access, without necessarily solving the problem that try to tackle.
The NGO recalls that many States have resorted in recent years to completely shutting down or slowing down the Internet or otherwise obstructing access to some web pages “in an attempt to control or stop communications, or as a way to punish entire regions or sectors of the population “.
Access Now, an organization that works to protect digital rights, has documented at least 155 internet outages and related restrictions in 29 countries throughout 2020, including Bangladesh, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Yemen, Belarus, Tanzania, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia and Togo. “Perhaps one of the most egregious cases has been the disruption of internet speed in the Indian region of Jammu and Kashmir, where internet access has been restricted since August 2019,” says Amnesty International.
At the same time, several countries did not release or refused to release statistical data for COVID-19, citing reputation, capacity, security and public order concerns, including Equatorial Guinea.
Many countries have also “interfered” with the right of access to information “by modifying freedom of information laws or by suspending the obligations of public entities to allow the public access to information in their possession.” Among them, the report mentions several European countries such as Spain, where the decree that established the state of alarm also suspended terms in general for procedures of public sector entities. The Transparency Council issued a notice saying that the processing of files could be delayed, according to a report of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) echoed by AI.
The document also analyzes specific attacks on people who have spoken out in difficult times, and how the pandemic has given governments “a new pretext to repress” critical and independent voices.
Journalists, political activists, health professionals, whistleblowers and human rights defenders from around the world who have expressed critical opinions regarding their governments’ response to the crisis “have suffered censorship, harassment, attacks and criminalization, which which has contributed to generating a climate of fear and intimidation that has aggravated the general feeling of uncertainty and fragility “, collects AI.
The organization fears that all these restrictions on freedom of expression linked to COVID-19 “or remain in specific measures.
“It is clear that the restrictions on freedom of expression related to COVID-19 are not simply extraordinary measures of limited duration to face a temporary crisis, but are part of an offensive against human rights that has been lived throughout the world for the past few years. Governments have found another excuse to intensify their attack on civil society, ”said Rajat Khosla. “Restricting the right to freedom of expression is dangerous and must not become the new normal. Governments must urgently lift these types of restrictions and guarantee the free flow of information to protect the right to health of the population. “
The report devotes an entire chapter to the threat of misinformation, which was already a serious problem before the pandemic, but has been driven by the uncertainty and confusion caused by the coronavirus, favoring behaviors such as reluctance to vaccinate. The NGO recalls that disinformation has also been driven “by unscrupulous messages and the manipulation of those who seek to spread the confusion for their own benefit, including politicians.” And he believes that social media companies should answer the question of whether they have taken sufficient measures to prevent the spread of false and misleading information.
Disinformation “is not fought with censorship,” says the NGO, but with free and independent media and a strong civil society. “States and social media companies must also ensure that the public has unrestricted access to correct, timely and evidence-based information,” said Rajat Khosla.