In Bangladesh, dozens of people were reportedly sued under the Digital Security Act in the last 3 months for allegedly spreading misinformation about COVID-19 or criticising the government response to the crisis, says UN HR chief
Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, has expressed alarm at the clampdown on freedom of expression in Bangladesh and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region in the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Any actions taken to stop the spread of false information must be proportionate, she said, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva on Wednesday.
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, said the High Commissioner.
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 said.
Bachelet, who has earlier served as President of Chile, 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 governments’ 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 Vietnam, she observed.
The High Commissioner, however, 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,” she said.
“In Bangladesh, dozens of people are reported to have had cases filed against them or have been arrested under the Digital Security Act in the last three months for allegedly spreading misinformation about COVID-19 or criticising the government response,” said the UN human rights chief.
“Local journalists and human rights defenders, some health professionals as well as some members of the general public have been reporting harassment or reprisals for complaining about denial of health care, inadequate facilities or irregularities in relief distribution,” she said.
“In some cases, journalists or other observers have been physically attacked for seeking to document alleged malpractices,” she added.