In a bid to control information about the COVID-19 pandemic, several governments around the world are using emergency powers to stifle independent media.
According to data collected by the International Press Institute (IPI), governments, especially those with existing authoritarian tendencies, are taking advantage of emergency legislation to crackdown on media freedom, frequently on the pretext of combating the spread of “fake news”.
“While certain types of emergency measures may be needed to effectively combat the current pandemic, any such measures that infringe on fundamental rights must be necessary, proportionate, temporary and limited to solving the immediate health crisis”, IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said. “Unfortunately, IPI’s monitoring shows that certain states are already using the crisis as a blank check to establish methods of silencing independent media that harm the flow of badly needed information now and that may outlive the pandemic.”
In Thailand, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former army general who led the Thai military’s coup d’état in 2014, imposed emergency laws on March 27 that empower him to censor media outlets and control the public narrative on COVID-19. He said in an address to the nation on TV: “Only I, or someone I assign, will be reporting progress of the situation to the public.” Under the emergency law, Prime Minister and a few senior bureaucrats and military officers will decide on policies.
In neighbouring Cambodia, the cabinet of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for the past 22 years, approved a draft law on state of emergency that is expected to be passed by the National Assembly later this week. Media reports said that the emergency laws will allow the state to initiate telecommunication surveillance as well as ban or restrict publication of news that could cause “panic or chaos”, seemingly without a court decision. Cambodia has a dismal press freedom record: over the past few years, the government has effectively forced the closure of independent media outlets in the country and enacted new laws to stifle critical journalism including regulations aimed at what officials consider “fake news”.
In The Philippines, independent media outlets have been barred from attending COVID-19 related briefings given by President Rodrigo Duterte. On March 26, Duterte signed a law giving himself special powers to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak in the country as well as imposing up to two month in jail or fines of around 18,000 euros for spreading “fake news”, a term for which there is no definition under Philippine law.
In Honduras, a country already in the midst of a serious press freedom crisis, President Juan Orlando Hernández went one step further and used emergency measures to, among other measures, suspend Article 72 of the constitution, which protects free expression.
In Europe, several governments have vastly expanded their powers under the pretext of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this week, despite criticism from the Council of Europe, the OSCE as well as dozens of national and international human rights groups, Hungary passed legislation handing Prime Minister Viktor Orbán sweeping new emergency powers to rule by decree for an indefinite period. The new law also criminalizes the spreading of misinformation deemed to undermine the authorities’ fight against the COVID-19 virus with fines and up to five years in prison – a further step in the government’s now decade-long effort to control news and information.
Neighbouring countries have followed suit. In Serbia, where the government already holds a strong grip on the country’s media, President Aleksandar Vučić declared a state of emergency and approved surveillance and phone tracking measures, raising concerns among the country’s media association that the powers could be used against journalists. In Romania, the government has also passed an emergency decree which gives authorities the power to close websites deemed to spread “fake news” about Covid-19. A mirror move was done in Bulgaria, where the authorities have approved a decree amending the penal code to punish those spreading misinformation with a sentence of up to three years in prison.
On March 17, IPI, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, had cautioned that governments could use this health emergency as pretext to censor news and information on-and offline or implement regressive regulations against media freedom.