Attacks on freedom of expression ‘devastating’ for public health

Censorship, misinformation during pandemic have had ‘a devastating impact’ on access to information, Amnesty says.

A woman receives a shot of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine
Russia, now grappling with a surge in COVID-19 cases, was one of the countries that introduced new laws restricting freedom of expression during the pandemic, Amnesty said. [File: Yuri Kochetkov/EPA]

Attacks on freedom of expression by governments, and the spread of misinformation globally during the COVID-19 pandemic have had “a devastating impact” on people’s ability to access accurate information to help them cope with the health crisis, Amnesty International has said.

The report – Silenced and Misinformed: Freedom of Expression in Danger During COVID-19 – published on Tuesday reveals how authorities’ use of censorship and punishment during the pandemic has reduced the quality of information reaching people.

The pandemic provided a “dangerous situation” where governments used new legislation to shut down independent reporting, and condemn critics or even those who tried to examine their government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, the report said.

“Throughout the pandemic, governments have launched an unprecedented attack on freedom of expression, severely curtailing peoples’ rights,” said Amnesty’s senior director for research advocacy and policy, Rajat Khosla.

“Communication channels have been targeted, social media has been censored, and media outlets have been closed down – having a dire impact on the public’s ability to access vital information about how to deal with COVID-19.

“In the midst of a pandemic, journalists and health professionals have been silenced and imprisoned. As a result, people have been unable to access information about COVID-19, including how to protect themselves and their communities. Approximately five million people have lost their lives to COVID-19 and lack of information will have likely been a contributory factor,” Khosla said.

In China, during the beginning of the pandemic, health workers, as well as professional and citizen journalists, attempted to raise the alarm as early as December 2019, the report said.

But the government targeted them for reporting on the outbreak, which was an unknown disease at the time.

By February 2020, 5,511 criminal investigations had been opened against individuals who published information for “fabricating and deliberately disseminating false and harmful information”, it said.

In one case, citizen journalist Zhang Zhan travelled to Wuhan in February 2020 to report on the outbreak and went missing in May. It was later revealed she was detained by police, charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment.

Other countries, including Tanzania, Russia and Nicaragua implemented “oppressive laws, restricting the right to freedom of expression and silencing critics under the guise or in the context of the pandemic”.

‘Division and confusion’

Social media companies have also played a role in spreading misinformation around COVID-19, because the platforms are designed to amplify attention-grabbing content and have not done enough due diligence to stop the spread of false information, the report argued.

“The onslaught of misinformation – whether that be through social media companies or people in a position of power seeking to spread division and confusion for their own gain – is posing a serious threat to the rights to freedom of expression and to health,” Amnesty said.

“It is making it increasingly difficult for individuals to have a fully informed opinion and make educated choices about their health based on the best available scientific facts. A variety of sources is key, as is the ability to challenge and debate available information.”

Source: Al Jazeera