UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed alarm at the clampdown on freedom of expression in parts of the Asia-Pacific, including in Sri Lanka, during the COVID-19 crisis, saying any actions taken to stop the spread of false information must be proportionate.
She said that in Sri Lanka, the Acting Inspector General of Police threatened to arrest anyone who allegedly criticizes or highlights “minor shortcomings” of officials involved in the coronavirus response or who shares “fake” or “malicious” messages.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka on 25 April wrote a letter to the police informing them that any arrest for the mere criticism of public officials or policies would be unconstitutional.
A number of individuals have been arrested in Sri Lanka over posts in their Facebook pages, the High Commissioner noted.
She said that many countries in the region already have laws governing alleged “fake news” and online media that raise human rights concerns and have been used in other contexts to deter legitimate speech, especially public debate, criticism of government policy and suppress freedom of expression.
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.
Bachelet said the COVID-19 pandemic had seen a further tightening of censorship in several countries, along with the arbitrary arrest and detention of people critical of their Government’s response or for simply sharing information or views about the pandemic.
Arrests for expressing discontent or allegedly spreading false information through the press and social media, have been reported in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Viet Nam.
The High Commissioner recognised the need to restrict harmful misinformation or disinformation to protect public health, or any incitement of hatred towards minority groups, but said this should not result in purposeful or unintentional censorship, which undermines trust.
“While Governments may have a legitimate interest in controlling the spread of misinformation in a volatile and sensitive context, this must be proportionate and protect freedom of expression,” Bachelet said. (Colombo Gazette)