ARTICLE 19 has published a briefing on how states, the media and social media companies can help to combat COVID-19 (coronavirus) by committing to transparency, tackling misinformation and promoting authoritative health advice. They also have a role to play in addressing hate speech directed at individuals of Chinese or Asian descent, connected to the coronavirus outbreak.
Acting Executive Director Quinn McKew said:
“The spread of COVID-19 across the globe has been matched by the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the virus. We have also seen some states attempt to stifle media reporting on the spread of the virus and use repressive legislation to arrest people who are sharing information about it.
“This is not the time for states to take a restrictive approach to freedom of expression and information. The global effort to combat COVID-19 will not be successful unless there is full transparency about the spread of the virus, the sharing of accurate public information and independent media coverage. Governments, the media and social media companies all have a role to play in ensuring the free flow of information during this global health crisis.
“Independent media, ethical journalism, citizen reporting, open public discourse and the free flow of information are indispensable in the global effort to counter COVID-19.”
“Governments must also address hate speech that has been targeted towards individuals and communities of Chinese or Asian descent, in a way that complies with international human rights standards.”
In February, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned about the “massive infodemic” accompanying the COVID-19 outbreak that “makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” The WHO has also repeatedly warned that misinformation about COVID-19 threatens response efforts.
Among the myths circulating online and elsewhere are claims that using hand dryers, eating garlic and drinking bleach can cure infections, that the origins of the outbreak lie in American or Chinese biological weapons or a sinister plot by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and that a 1993 episode of the Simpsons predicted the coronavirus by name.
Some governments have responded with a heavy hand to misinformation related to the COVID-19 outbreak. Although China has reoriented its approach to the outbreak, applying strict quarantines and cooperating with global health officials, it has continued to tightly control media narratives and harass those criticising government officials and policies. Elsewhere in Asia, governments have applied repressive laws governing ‘fake news’, online communications and cyber-crimes to arrest and charge those supposedly spreading untruths about the virus. Thailand has empowered a new ‘Anti-Fake News Center’ to investigate false claims about COVID-19 and make criminal complaints. Iran’s government set up a ‘coronavirus defence base’ that has prompted the arrest of individuals’ supposedly spreading misinformation while simultaneously hiding information about the spread of COVID-19 in the country.
ARTICLE 19’s briefing outlines several challenges to freedom of expression and information during the current COVID-19 crisis and makes key recommendations for governments, the media and social media companies:
Governments: Governments must develop policies and responses to the COVID-19 outbreak that embrace freedom of expression and access to information. Approaches to misinformation and ‘hate speech’ that rely on censorship and criminal sanctions should be replaced with those emphasising transparency and media freedom.
Media: Media outlets and journalists should report accurately and without bias, investigate propaganda campaigns and official discrimination, and make sure there is the right of correction and reply.
Social media: Social media companies should continue to work with the WHO and health authorities to promote dissemination of accurate, authoritative information about COVID-19. They should also ensure adverse actions taken against misinformation and hate speech are based on clear and easily understood policies and backed by due process guarantees.
Read the full briefing.
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