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Coronavirus

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.

free_speech_protesters_asia

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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