India Among 12 A-P Nations Suppressing Dissent During Covid-19: UN

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré (file photo)
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré (file photo)

The UN Human Rights Office has identified a dozen Asia-Pacific (A-P) countries that are depriving people of their right to express during the ongoing Covid crisis. The countries are Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Viet Nam.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on Wednesday (June 3) expressed alarm at the clampdown on freedom of expression in parts of the Asia-Pacific during the Covid-19 crisis, saying any actions taken to stop the spread of false information must be proportionate.

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.

DEATH THREATS FOR EDITORIAL WORK

As a journalist, I have been facing increasing threats including death threats for my editorial and anti-corruption work while the Indian authorities have ignored my complaints about these threats.

The Paris-based international organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) that defends freedom of journalists has urged the Indian government to save me from threats and persecution.

Christophe Deloire, Secretary-General of RSF, has written letters to Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union Law and Justice Minister; Amit Shah, Union Home Minister; and others, asking them to take action against the culprits who threaten me. In an article written on its site, RSF explains that in the recent months I have received multiple threats for my reporting.

Now, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of India has issued notice to Delhi Police in my case so that I could work and move freely, but the Delhi Police did not respond.

Rakesh Raman

Arrests for expressing discontent or allegedly spreading false information through the press and social media, have been reported in these identified countries.

The High Commissioner recognized 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.

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“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.

In India, according to the UN Human Rights Office, several journalists and at least one doctor have been charged for their public criticism of the authorities’ response to Covid-19.

In Mumbai, the UN statement adds, the police went so far as to pass an order prohibiting “any person inciting mistrust towards government functionaries and their actions taken in order to prevent spread of the Covid-19 virus and thereby causing danger to human health or safety or a disturbance to the public tranquility”.

“In these times of great uncertainty, medical professionals, journalists, human rights defenders, and the general public must be allowed to express opinions on vitally important topics of public interest, such as the provision of health care and the handling of the health and socio-economic crisis, and the distribution of relief items,” said Bachelet.

She added that this crisis should not be used to restrict dissent or the free flow of information and debate.

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