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Concerns grow over Asian curbs on pandemic discussion 

UN human rights commission has accused 12 Asian nations of restricting free debate of Covid-19 issues

Joseph Benny

Joseph Benny

Updated: June 10, 2020 10:35 AM GMT
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Concerns grow over Asian curbs on pandemic discussion 

A screenshot of the mural that led to the arrest of three artists in Myitkyina, the capital of Myanmar's Kachin state, in April. Buddhist hardliners complained that the mural, portraying a Grim Reaper figure spreading the coronavirus, looked like a Buddhist monk.

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The ongoing spat between Asian nations and the United Nations Human Rights Commission validates the suspicions that several Asian governments have imposed curbs on data about Covid-19 infections and deaths.

Eight Asian nations have jointly responded to the UN agency's allegation that media restrictions have hampered the free flow of information regarding the pandemic's spread.

Their June 5 response came after the UN agency's chief Michelle Bachelet said that several Asian governments had misused laws against fake news to curb "legitimate speech, especially public debate, criticism of government policy and freedom of expression."

Bachelet's June 3 statement named 12 Asian countries — China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam — for violating freedom of expression.

These nations have rounded up journalists, medical professionals, human rights defenders and people who questioned government policies relating to the deadly disease, it said.

However, the joint statement of eight countries asked the UN agency to play "a responsible role" that "adds rather than detracts" the governments' "primary focus" in keeping their populations safe from the pandemic.

In the pandemic context, "the spread of harmful misinformation and falsehoods" meant "danger to public health," said the joint statement without denying that governments had put curbs on media.

These governments said they were forced to take necessary measures "to hold those who spread misinformation and mislead the public accountable for their irresponsible actions."

However, China, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Malaysia did not become a party to the joint statement issued by the other eight countries' Geneva-based permanent missions.

Bachelet agreed with governments that they have "a legitimate interest in controlling the spread of misinformation in a volatile and sensitive context. But it "must be proportionate and protect freedom of expression," she said.

Such measures "should adhere to the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, serve a legitimate public health objective and should be the least intrusive approach required to achieve that result," she noted.

Rampant violations 

In India, several journalists, human rights workers and a doctor are facing police cases for criticizing the authorities' response to Covid-19.

In Mumbai, India's commercial capital and one of the worst pandemic-hit cities, police have prohibited "any person inciting mistrust towards government functionaries and their actions to prevent the spread of Covid- 19," noted the UN agency.

According to the UN human rights chief, several Indian journalists were targeted for highlighting shortcomings in handling of the pandemic or reporting stories which governments did not approve.

In Bangladesh, cases have been filed against dozens of people under the Digital Security Act in the last three months for allegedly spreading misinformation about Covid-19 or criticizing the government, Bachelet said.

In Cambodia, the UN agency has documented the arrest of 30 individuals, including six women and a 14-year-old girl, for Covid-19-related comments on social media. Many of them have been charged with spreading so-called "fake news" or "false information." 

In China, the UN agency received information that more than a dozen medical professionals, academics and ordinary citizens were detained and in some instances charged for publishing their views on Covid-19.

In Indonesia, the UN agency said, at least 51 people are being investigated under the criminal defamation law for allegedly spreading fake news, including three men who were arrested for posting a message on social media, Bachelet added.

In Malaysia, a correspondent for the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post is being investigated for alleged improper use of network facilities.

According to official estimates, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission has filed at least 265 cases for publishing alleged fake news on Covid-19, the UN rights office said

According to Bachelet, three artists in Kachin state in Myanmar were charged over a Covid-19 wall mural deemed insulting to Buddhism on April 3.

On May 21, the Kayin state court sentenced the chief editor of the Dae Pyaw news agency for making a "statement that could cause or incite public fear or mutiny."

In Nepal, the government has used a stringent cybercrime law to arrest a retired bureaucrat who was critical of the government and its Covid-19 response.

In the Philippines, Bachelet said, arrests have been made under new Covid-19 special legislation which criminalizes the alleged spread of "false information."

In Sri Lanka, the acting inspector-general of police threatened to arrest anyone who criticizes or highlights "minor shortcomings" of officials involved in the coronavirus response or who shares "fake" or "malicious" messages, Bachelet said.

In Thailand, the Anti-Fake News Center of the Ministry of Digital Economy and Society and the Technology Crime Suppression Division of the Royal Thai Police are conducting joint operations to address social media content deemed to be "disinformation" in the Covid-19 context, Bachelet noted.

Since the start of the pandemic, more than 600 Facebook users in Vietnam had been summoned for questioning relating to online posts about the virus outbreak, she added.

The pandemic "crisis should not be used to restrict dissent or the free flow of information and debate. A diversity of viewpoints will foster a greater understanding of the challenges we face and help us better overcome them," Bachelet pointed out.

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