HRC44: States must adopt recommendations of the UN expert on freedom of expression during Covid-19 pandemic

ARTICLE 19 welcomes the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, on disease pandemics and freedom of opinion and expression, presented at the 44th session of the Human Rights Council (HRC). The report expressed concern that most measures taken by States to combat the current public health crisis fail to reach the international freedom of expression standards. ARTICLE 19 agrees that the free and transparent flow of information is critical to meeting the social and public health challenges of the pandemic. We urge States to promote and protect access to information during this time and ensure that all efforts, taken to stop the spread of Covid-19 and any other diseases, meet all international freedom of expression standards and human rights guarantees.

 “The Special Rapporteur’s report is a timely analysis on the current climate surrounding freedom of expression. We are witnessing an increased global trend of reducing access to information and restricting freedom of expression. The Covid-19 pandemic has created an even more hostile environment for freedom of expression, with journalists and activists facing even greater repression.” said Quinn McKew, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.

“During the public health crisis, freedom of expression and access to information are key factors in dealing with the outbreak. It is regrettable that access to the most vital information has often been hindered and consequently created a crisis for freedom of expression.”

 “The pandemic has showed that States have not taken sufficient measures to protect freedom of expression but instead seized the opportunity to adopt repressive legislation. Going forward, States must make a general and unwavering commitment to protect these rights that are the basis for any democratic society.” McKew added.

Background

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, presented his report, Disease pandemics and the freedom of opinion and expression, to the Human Rights Council today, on 10 July 2020. This is the last report that the present mandate-holder, David Kaye, presented to the Human Rights Council at the end of his six-year mandate.

The Special Rapporteur’s report begins by reminding States that the Covid-19 pandemic has, indeed, had a lasting impact on freedom of expression. In his report, he points out that the pandemic has highlighted existing issues – distrust in sources of information, propaganda and misinformation dominating public authority statements.

The Special Rapporteur stresses the standards of legality, necessity and proportionality must be met even during disease pandemics to ensure that no human rights violations occur. He continues by saying that the pandemic has made new question emerge revolving around the obligations and responsibilities States have during a pandemic surrounding access to information and freedom of expression. The Special Rapporteur concludes that the answers must be anchored in human rights law as freedom of opinion and expression is one of the most fundamental aspects of a democratic society. Hindering freedom of expression during a pandemic could be the first steps towards the path of authoritarianism.

The Special Rapporteur highlights five key challenges that States and other actors must consider during the duration of a disease pandemic:

  • Access to information held by public authorities
  • Access to the Internet
  • Protection and promotion of independent media
  • Public health disinformation
  • Public health surveillance.

In his concluding remarks, the Special Rapporteur states that in some circumstances, “information saves lives” and that this is all more important during a worldwide pandemic. He calls on all States to protect those who fall within their jurisdiction, and, in the context of the pandemic, protect those who do not. He reminds States that they must ensure dignity and respect to all individuals. He emphasises that this must be done by protecting freedom of expression, access to information, autonomy and self-governance.

ARTICLE 19 believes that the ability to develop informed opinions is crucial to hold Governments accountable and ensure meaningful participation in the democratic process. We support the Special Rapporteur’s efforts to highlight the challenges freedom of expression faces within the current climate and ask States to follow his recommendations. States must ensure that all measures taken within the current health crisis, and beyond, protect freedom of expression and information.

Finally, ARTICLE 19 congratulates Special Rapporteur David Kaye on his continuous efforts to protect freedom of expression over the last six years. His reports to the Human Rights Council and the General Assembly have been invaluable to the protection and promotion of freedom of expression in the digital age. We hope that recommendations in the previous and current reports will guide States in meeting their commitments to protect and promote freedom of expression and information now and in the future.

Read ARTICLE 19 oral statement following the presentation of the Report.