The COVID-19 pandemic has been a powerful basis for suppression of speech and expression by governments. The restriction of speech is one problem that constantly troubled China’s struggle with the outbreak of coronavirus that resulted in a high price for China, as well as the rest of the globe.
The rapid development of COVID-19 related misinformation was identified by the World Health Organization as an “Infodemic”. An Infodemic is defined as “an overabundance of information, some accurate and some not, that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources or reliable guidance when they need it.”
Different Governments throughout the world, particularly for the health workers, have chosen to suffocate freedom of expression and speech in an attempt to resolve the COVID-19 pandemic. Li Wenliang’s unfortunate end, the Chinese doctor, was forced to retrace his claims about the spread of the virus. Then, consolidated democracies such as the UK, the U.S. and India followed China’s lead to suppress the transparent and free debate.
RECENT CASES IN INDIA
In West Bengal, India, an FIR was reported against a health professional who spoke of COVID-19 health workers’ lack of security equipment. Fortunately, the High Court in Calcutta ruled not to be arrested but not to be permitted to post something on the topic on Facebook furthermore. To counter what is called the “false news,” the Indian Supreme Court gave the media a step further to publish official versions of the events.
The recent case of Dr. Indranil Khan, suggested that the trend towards open reporting and opinion on the country’s coronavirus situation appears to be alarming in India. This article analyzes the problems of freedom of speech raised by the laws which are possibly unique in the COVID-19 case, although it has several different laws and ways in which the government can and has in the past curbed freedom of expression.
VIOLATION AROUND THE GLOBE.
Media reports have shown that the National Health Service’s doctors and nurses in the UK were asked to be quiet on their terms of employment. Hospitals and clinics in the US allegedly threatened to fire health workers, if they complain about the shortage of security equipment in the public domain. Such a reduction in freedom of speech appears to be below the legal proportionality requirements and is indeed a breach of human rights.
APPROACH TOWARDS RUDIMENTARY IMPORTANCE OF TRANSPARENCY
The stakes could not be higher, decisions will determine life or death, not only in patients with COVID-19 but in shaping our societies’ future. Transparency is a central element of good governance and transparency must be upheld if there is no change in oversight by those in power.
Restrictions on human rights should rationally be related to the specific purpose the State seeks to accomplish, as defined by legal principles. Also, steps must be required for the least restrictive ways and proportionate means of achieving that goal. States can justify restrictions on the preservation of public health and public order in emergency situations (Article 19(3) of the ICCPR) and for panic and chaos prevention. Even if this argument is recognized, it may be argued that these limitations are necessary and proportionate.
ARGUMENT AGAINST THE PRESENT APPROACH
An alternate solution to coping with health workers’ issues and rights would be to establish a framework through which policymakers would learn about health workers’ facts and realistic experiences. However, the authorities have responded by restricting their right to talk without having appropriate equipment and without warning the public of facts concerning health in those health facilities, in the absence of these reconciliatory steps. Thus, these bodies limited the right to freedom of speech, threatened the health rights of health employees and restricted the public’s right to truthful information to preserve public order. The cost of upholding law and order can not be so immense.
Open formats are life-saving. It is the core responsibility of the government in times of crisis in public health to make accurate, timely and clear information available.
- Make specific data on the number of patients newly infected and the recoverers, including geographical details areas affected by COVID-19 propagation and supply both Explanations for testing protocol scientific and easy to understand and presentation of the methodology of the results.
- Meet legal requirements for data security and privacy.
- Hold regular public and health officials briefings and try to present the current situation in a compassionate and easily understandable way, and ensure access to public and official records through the media.
- Communicate in all languages spoken, including minority and sign languages, taking digital literacy into account, and additional obstacles.
EXAMPLES AROUND THE WORLD
- In Argentina, two people have been imprisoned for disseminating false information online by narrowly interpreting the penal code’s provisions which impose a prison term of up to six years for the incitement of public fear.
- The Bolivian President issued a decree that those who incite disobedience to the government measures to combat COVID-19 are prosecuted for crimes against public health, either ‘misinform’ or ’cause of insecurity’ among the public.
- A total of one reporter for publishing “misleading” is arrested in Ethiopia as Government’s response to COVID-19 facts. According to media outlets, the government has ordered 200,000 graves to be excavated, as per Yayasew Shemelse.
- As President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta urged law enforcement authorities to arrest “fake-news proprietors,” at least one person was arrested on account of the “spreading of misleading and alarming COVID-19 facts.”
In this article, I have stressed upon the potential harm that can be caused by the spread of misinformation. It has the power to strengthen existing divisions and inspire in societies unjustified fears and panic. Misinformation was leveraged and greatly contributed to the social stigma in online hate speech against certain groups during the times of COVID-19.
The government has to align policies to address disinformation and misinformation with international human rights commitments and the rule of law to protect the public safety and stability of the democracies that are going forward. COVID-19 is best approached by letting the facts come out, regardless of whether they are convenient or not.