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Press Freedom Under COVID-19 Lockdown in Asia

Jerald Aruldas, a journalist from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and his colleague, were held by city police for 9 hours for reporting on stories around alleged government corruption around the food aid distribution system and how doctors in Coimbatore faced food shortages while working during the COVID-19 lockdown. Courtesy: Jerald Aruldas

Jerald Aruldas, a journalist from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, and his colleague, were held by city police for 9 hours for reporting on stories around alleged government corruption around the food aid distribution system and how doctors in Coimbatore faced food shortages while working during the COVID-19 lockdown. Courtesy: Jerald Aruldas

Governments have made the media “a scapegoat” across Asia, targeting journalists who are simply reporting on the failures or shortcomings of their leadership during the coronavirus pandemic, press freedom experts have warned.

“Governments have said that the real emergency caused by the pandemic has made it necessary for them to prevent the spread of false information that might, for example, cause panic,” Steven Butler, Asia programme coordinator at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told IPS. “Of course, in at least some cases it’s the government decisions themselves that have led to confusion and panic, and the media has simply become the scapegoat.”

Butler spoke to IPS following an appeal by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet who on Wednesday warned that censorship has become more severe in countries across Asia under the pandemic. She requested governments around the world to take “proportionate” actions in case someone is spreading false information, and that those actions must comply with requirements of “legality, necessity, proportionality, [and serving] a legitimate public health objective”.

“When you have a police official defining necessity of a person’s arrest and detention on the basis that a ruling party politician came to the police station to file a case against the person, there is much to be concerned about how authorities interpret necessity, proportion and legality,” Saad Hammadi, Regional Campaigner of the South Asia division at Amnesty International, told IPS.

He was speaking about the plight of Bangladeshi journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol who had disappeared for almost two months before he was “found” and taken to police custody — just in time for World Press Freedom Day.

Before Kajol’s disappearance and subsequent arrest, he was already facing charges under Bangladesh’s highly controversial Digital Security Act.

There are similar cases across Asia. 

In May, IPS reported on a number of cases in India where journalists were also arrested or detained for criticising the government.

In India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu, journalist Jerald Aruldas and photographer M Balaji had been detained for 9 hours after a series of pieces that exposed corruption in the government food aid distribution system, and the food issues that doctors in Coimbatore city faced. Their editor, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian, was subsequently arrested and released but was charged under several sections of criminal laws as well as The Disaster Management Act, 2005 for publishing the stories.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) records show governments in 12 countries across Asia are targeting journalists or anyone expressing their criticism about the pandemic response: Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

For people in all 12 countries where the arrests have taken place, the stifling of press freedom is not new. According to Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom 2020 Index, all 12 countries ranked quite low, with Malaysia and Nepal being the least restrictive among the group, and China and Vietnam being some of the most restrictive.

‘Fake news’ used as an excuse to restrict press freedom

In all these countries, the charges are some variation of the trope that any criticism is “false news”. Governments are making arrests or detaining those speaking up with the excuse that their so-called “fake news” incites panic among communities. In Cambodia, a child as young as 14 was arrested, along with 30 other individuals, for sharing commentary on social media. 

In Bangladesh, China, and India, health personnel, journalists and ordinary citizens have been detained or arrested for voicing similar concerns about their respective government’s response, or lack thereof. In Nepal, a bureaucrat was arrested for criticising the government’s response to the COVID-19 crisis.

“It’s unacceptable that even one person is persecuted for legitimately exercising their right to freedom of expression but since March this year, at least 16 journalists have been detained or sued on charges that are in contravention of the rights protected under international law on freedom of expression,” Hammadi of Amnesty International told IPS.

Bachelet said it’s crucial to remain alert and vigilant about misinformation at this time. During the first few weeks of the coronavirus crisis — even before it was termed a “pandemic” — misinformation surrounding the disease had become a crucial concern. In response to this, the World Health Organisation launched the EPI-WIN, which would provide users information in a timely manner, filtering out an overload of information without solutions.

An already existing problem

While the OHCHR statement came almost six months into the coronavirus crisis, experts have been ringing alarm bells about the issue for some time now.

In May, while observing World Press Freedom Day, Hammadi wrote that it’s important to be vigilant against those who are “exploiting” this moment to spread misinformation, but warned that “some governments are themselves exploiting this moment – to suppress relevant information uncomfortable for the government or use the situation as a pretext to crack down on critical voices”.

Butler of the CPJ told IPS that these are countries that were already armed with the trope of “false news” to charge journalists. And the pandemic only exacerbated that.

“Additional emergency legislation and decrees have increased pressure on journalists as governments boost efforts to control the flow of information,” Butler said. “In many cases, they have used these powers to go after journalists who report shortcomings in the government response to the pandemic. In some cases, the charges against journalists have been incredibly petty.”

In her appeal, Bachelet warned that heads of state must not use the crisis “to restrict dissent or the free flow of information and debate.”

“A diversity of viewpoints will foster greater understanding of the challenges we face and help us better overcome them,” she said. “It will also help countries to have a vibrant debate on the root causes and good practices needed to overcome the longer-term socio-economic and other impacts. This debate is crucial for countries to build back better after the crisis.”

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