How Governments Are Using COVID-19 To Curtail Free Speech

In India, Thailand and elsewhere, authorities have recently passed laws or decrees limiting what media can do and say.

Social activists gathered in protest to demand the immediate release of Bangladeshi journalist Shafiqul Islam kajol, in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Social activists gathered in protest to demand the immediate release of Bangladeshi journalist Shafiqul Islam kajol, in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Alessio Perrone

When Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a Bangladeshi journalist, turned up in police custody in early May, it had been 53 days since he was last seen or heard — and 54 since he was sued for defamation.

A politician from Bangladesh's ruling Awami League party had sued Kajol for allegedly publishing "false, offensive, illegally obtained and defamatory" content on Facebook. Kajol disappeared the day after.

"He was scared, he was worried, he was crying and breaking down every one or two sentences," Kajol's son, Monorom Polok, told The Guardian after finally speaking to him.

Kajol is one of at least 20 journalists who were charged or arrested in Bangladesh over the past month alone for criticisms they made in their reporting or on social media of the government's response to the coronavirus pandemic, Al Jazeera reports.

Indeed, attacks on freedom of expression have not been limited to Bangladesh. With the pandemic sweeping across the world and the responses by governments coming under scrutiny, authorities in many countries are using existing regulation or introducing new laws to try to limit what journalists and social media users are allowed to say.

In some cases, new rules have had a genuinely civic purpose, aiming to curb the spread of dangerous misinformation about the pandemic or to keep panic under control. But too often, they are being applied as a new tool to censor free speech on the internet and silence critical voices. Here are some other cases:

In Mumbai, India, new rules took the shape of a gag order introduced by the police on May 23, according to The Wire. The order bans the spread of false or confusing information. But it also applies to any criticism of the state of Maharashtra, where Mumbai sits, and its actions to control the novel coronavirus. The police call this misinformation and criticism "a danger to human health or safety and a disturbance of the public tranquility."

The new rules grant authorities powers to order the media to correct reports.

This is not Mumbai's first brush with crackdowns on dissent: The city has seen several gag orders in the last 30 years. But under the Hindu-nationalist president Narendra Modi and his BJP party, India has seen a rise in attempts to thwart dissent in several states in recent years.


Protesters cover their mouths with tape— Committee to Protect Journalists/Asia Desk

In France, new rules forcing social networks to remove illegal content were deemed so important that they became the first non-coronavirus-related bill discussed by the Lower House since March. The law was first introduced in March 2019 but little action had been taken since then. Passed on May 13, it forces tech companies to take down hateful content within 24 hours and any content related to terrorism and child pornography within one hour. Failure to do so can warrant fines up to 1.25 million euros, Le Monde reports.

The new law follows a series of clumsy attempts to limit misinformation about the coronavirus, including the publishing of an official "fake news' list. Journalists and activists claim the new law could give politicians a new tool to stifle journalists, activists and researchers because it's unclear exactly what content will be considered illegal.

The prime minister of Thailand used the threat of dangerous rumors about the pandemic as the basis of a new emergency decree restricting freedom of speech. The new rules grant authorities powers to order the media to correct reports. They can also press charges against journalists, who face up to five years in jail for violations.

As the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) explains, the decree applies to "reporting or spreading of information regarding COVID-19 which is untrue and may cause public fear, as well as deliberate distortion of information which causes misunderstanding and hence affects peace and order or public morals."

Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative, said: "Journalists serve a crucial role in keeping the public informed during health crises … (and) should be allowed to do their jobs without fear of reprisal."

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New Delhi, India: Fumigation Against Dengue Fever In New Delhi

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 வணக்கம்*

Welcome to Thursday, where America's top general reacts to China's test of a hypersonic weapon system, Russia is forced to reimpose lockdown measures and Venice's historic gondola race is hit by a doping scandal. French daily Les Echos also offers a cautionary tale of fraud in the crypto economy.

[*Vaṇakkam, Tamil - India, Sri Lanka, Singapore]


Top U.S. general says Chinese weapon nearly a "Sputnik moment": China recently conducted a "very concerning" test of a hypersonic weapon system as part of its push to expand space and military technologies, Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Bloomberg News. America's top military officer said that this was akin to the Soviet Union's stunning launch of the world's first satellite, Sputnik, 1957, which sparked the Cold War space race. Milley also called the test of the weapon "a very significant technological event" that is just one element of China's military capabilities.

Brexit: France seizes British trawler: A British trawler has been seized by France while fishing in French waters without a license, amid escalating conflict over post-Brexit fishing rights. France's Minister for Europe said it will adopt a zero-tolerance attitude towards Britain and block access to virtually all of its boats until it awards licenses to French fishermen.

COVID update: Russia confirmed a new record of coronavirus deaths, forcing officials to reimpose some lockdown measures, including a nationwide workplace shutdown in the first week of November. Germany also saw its numbers spike, with more than 28,000 new infections yesterday, adding to worries about restrictions this winter there and elsewhere in Europe. Singapore, meanwhile, reported the biggest surge in the city-state since the coronavirus pandemic began. Positive news on the vaccine front, as U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck granted royalty-free license for a COVID-19 antiviral pill to help protect people in the developing world.

Iran nuclear talks to resume: Iran's top nuclear negotiator said multilateral talks in Vienna with world powers about its nuclear development program will resume before the end of November. The announcement comes after the U.S. warned efforts to revive the deal were in "critical phase."

First U.S. passport with "X" gender marker: The U.S. State Department has issued its first American passport with an "X" gender marker. It is designed to give nonbinary, intersex and gender-nonconforming people a marker other than male or female on their travel document. Several other countries, including Canada, Argentina and Nepal, already offer the same option.

China limits construction of super skyscrapers: China has restricted smaller cities in the country from building extremely tall skyscrapers, as part of a larger bid to crack down on wasteful vanity projects by local governments. Earlier this year the country issued a ban on "ugly architecture."

Doping scandal hits Venice's gondola race: For the first time in the history of the Venice Historical Regatta, a participant has tested positive to marijuana in a doping test: Gondolier Renato Busetto, who finished the race in second place, will be suspended for 13 months.


"End of the ice age," titles German-language Luxembourgish daily Luxemburger Wort, writing about how the ice melting in the Arctic opens up new economic opportunities with a new passage for countries like Russia and China but with potentially devastating effects for the environment. The issue of the Arctic is one of the topics that will be discussed at the COP26 Climate Change Conference which kicks off in Glasgow on Sunday.


$87 billion

A new United Nations report found that extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones, floods and droughts have caused India an average annual loss of about $87 billion in 2020. India is among the countries which suffered the most from weather hazards this year along with China and Japan.


Air Next: How a crypto scam collapsed on a single spelling mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy from Laurence Boisseau in Paris-based daily Les Echos.

📲 The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system. Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation.

📝 On Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, the CEO admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

⚠️ What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond". Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

➡️


"A weapon was handed to Mr. Baldwin. The weapon is functional, and fired a live round."

— Following the Oct. 21 on-set shooting death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins, Sante Fe County Sheriff Adan Mendoza told a press conference that the "facts are clear" about the final moments before Hutchins was shot. The investigation continues to determine what led up to that moment, and any possible criminal responsibility related to how the "prop" gun that actor Alec Baldwin fired was loaded.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Share with us your favorite gondola memories or worst crypto scams — and let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!

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