To combat fake pandemic news, countries beef up censorship

These new measures suppressing press and internet freedoms are ripe for abuse.
Digital freedom
3 mins
Laptop screen with a virus slashed out.

This post was originally published on August 10, 2020.

Since the beginning of this year, countries have been scrambling to control the spread of Covid-19 by placing unprecedented measures and restrictions on freedoms we took for granted.

Restricted travel, social distancing, and contact tracing are only some of the emergency measures that have been crucial in reducing cases in countries that have implemented them rigorously.

In the midst of this sustained emergency, however, some countries have taken strides in acquiring new powers over press and internet freedoms that are ripe for abuse.

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Some of the extraordinary surveillance measures countries are taking—and the ensuing erosion of personal privacy—have also been coupled with efforts to control and censor disinformation surrounding the pandemic.

YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter have all attempted to stem the tide of disinformation, but several countries also started introducing (and reinforcing) censorship measures surrounding the dissemination of information on the pandemic.

Censorship passed under the guise of public health concerns

Amid attempts to combat the throng of fake news and disinformation during a public health crisis, several countries around the world have taken a heavy-handed approach in controlling how information about Covid-19 is disseminated.

Countries that were first affected by the virus had already started imposing fake news laws and variations of online censorship in February, followed up with fines, threats, and arrests of those accused of posting disinformation about the virus.

This has since continued throughout the year, with leaders being given, if not already possessing, emergency powers to tackle the pandemic, including the ability to introduce tighter restrictions on how the press reports on the virus and how freely their citizens can discuss the virus on social media.

This is more apparent in countries that already have inclinations to censor or control press and internet freedoms.

In March, the Philippines passed a Covid-19 law that not only gave swaths of emergency powers to its president, Rodrigo Duterte, but also criminalized the spreading of “false information,” punishable by two months in prison and a fine of 19,600 USD.

Thai authorities invoked the Computer Crimes Act—which criminalizes criticism of public officials on the basis of defamation or sedition—in attempts to silence journalists and public healthcare workers who have voiced their criticisms of the government’s response to the virus.

From April until June, Hungary introduced a set of emergency measures, among which was a law with prison terms of up to five years for anyone knowingly spreading misinformation. While the measures have since been overturned, the government has left the door open for such measures to be implemented again.

Other countries appear to be taking advantage of the global attention on the pandemic to pass further restrictions on internet freedoms. In the latest of restrictions on internet freedom in the country, Turkey will require all social media platforms working in the country to have servers there from October 1, creating a way for the government to collect data on citizens.

Opportunities for the power-hungry

Even if these restrictions on press and internet freedoms were well-intended to stem the overwhelming volume of disinformation online during a public health crisis, there is reason to suspect a power grab. As Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, told The New York Times, “We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic.” With no apparent end to the pandemic in sight, we are likely to see such restrictions on press coverage and social media sustained, if not tightened further.

When freedom of information is a matter of life and death

With waves of Covid-19 still occurring globally and our understanding of how the virus works (and how it can be combated) still incomplete, it is a matter of life and death that true information about it be allowed to flow unhindered by censors, firewalls, and threats of imprisonment. After all, media censorship exacerbated the spread of the Spanish Flu in 1918. Let’s not have that history repeated a century later.

Disinformation very much exists online, but attempts to censor it even with the most well-meaning of intentions should not be used as an excuse to trample freedoms that, like with a lot of things, we took for granted until now.

Ceinwen focused on digital privacy, censorship, and surveillance, and has interviewed leading figures in tech.