If passed, a provision in the proposed Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Bill would undermine the rights to freedom of expression and access to information, which are essential to a robust response to the COVID-19 pandemic, ARTICLE 19 said today. The draft Bill provides for criminal penalties for those who spread information about communicable diseases that could cause ‘public panic’. Section 20 of the draft Bill should be removed in its entirety.
“During a pandemic, information literally saves lives,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “Now is not the time to increase censorship of public health discussions.”
Section 20 of the draft Bill empowers the Ministry of Health to delegate authority to local officials to prohibit speaking, writing, receiving or publishing news on contagious and communicable diseases that could ‘cause panic’. First-time offenders would face a fine of between 50,000 and 100,000 kyats, and repeat offenders would face imprisonment of up to six months and a fine of between 300,000 and 500,000 kyats.
The draft Bill, which would replace a 1995 law enacted under the same title, was published for public feedback on the website of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw and in state-owned newspapers in mid-February 2020. Since then, the World Health Organization has characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic, and the number of cases reported globally has grown to over four million. Myanmar reported its first COVID-19 case on 23 March and has since recorded 180 cases and six deaths related to the virus. The Myanmar government has not provided further information on when Parliament will consider the Bill. However, the next Parliament session is scheduled to begin on 18 May 2020.
Access to information in Myanmar has suffered a dramatic decline in the past month. In late March 2020, the Myanmar government directed all telecommunications operators to block several ethnic news websites, purportedly on the basis that they spread ‘fake news’ related to COVID-19. The Myanmar government also recently required all mobile phone users to re-register their SIM cards, potentially preventing those who lack identity documents from accessing the internet.
ARTICLE 19’s policy papers Viral Lies: Misinformation and the Coronavirus and Ensuring the Public’s Right to Know in the Covid-19 Pandemic describe how international standards on freedom of expression and access to information are relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has emphasized that ‘information accessibility’ is a key component of the right to health. When states restrict expression relating to health issues or block access to health-related information and do not publish health information proactively, populations suffer adverse health impacts and cannot fully enjoy the right to health.
During the coronavirus pandemic, many governments have reduced, rather than increased, access to information. The reduction in the public’s right to know about the activities of their governments is counterproductive to the effort to combat the COVID-19 outbreak. The right to information is crucial for raising public awareness, promoting trust in government, fighting misinformation, ensuring accountability, and monitoring implementation of public policies aimed at resolving the crisis.
“Around the globe, governments have taken the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to control expression, but such efforts threaten to undermine effective responses to COVID-19”, said Bugher. “Now more than ever, Myanmar needs people to speak up when they are concerned about their health and safety.”