Government all over the world have been called upon by international experts who are monitors for freedom of expression and freedom of the media for the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, and the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe to continue to uphold the right to freedom of expression and access to information at this period when the Coronavirus pandemic has caused growing disruptions all over the world.
Saying they shared; the grave concern of people everywhere in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic; fully understand and support the efforts of public health professionals and governments to develop and implement strategies to protect human health and human life, the experts acknowledged with concern that the fundamental and non-derogable right to life is at stake and that governments are obligated to ensure its protection.
They, however, pointed out that: “Human health depends not only on readily accessible health care. It also depends on access to accurate information about the nature of the threats and the means to protect oneself, one’s family, and one’s community. The right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, through any media, applies to everyone, everywhere, and may only be subject to narrow restrictions.”
Through a joint statement, theInternational experts urged governments to take actions which they argued in five points.
They argued that: “it is essential that governments provide truthful information about the nature of the threat posed by the coronavirus. Governments everywhere are obligated under human rights law to provide reliable information in accessible formats to all, with particular focus on ensuring access to information by those with limited internet access or where disability makes access challenging.”
Harping on the critical importance of the internet at this time of crisis, they pointed out that “It is essential that governments refrain from blocking internet access” and that “in situations where the internet has been blocked, governments should, as a matter of priority, ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible internet service.” They pointed out that “at a time of emergency, when access to information is of critical importance, broad restrictions on access to the internet cannot be justified on public order or national security grounds.”
The international experts stated that “the right of access to information means that governments must be making exceptional efforts to protect the work of journalists,’ as journalism serves a crucial function at a moment of a public health emergency, particularly when it aims to inform the public of critical information and monitors government actions.
To this end, they “urge all governments to robustly implement their freedom of information laws to ensure that all individuals, especially journalists, have access to information.”
Sharing the concern that false information about the pandemic could lead to health concerns, panic and disorder, the experts counselled that it is essential that governments and internet companies address disinformation in the first instance by themselves providing reliable information that may be in the form of robust public messaging, support for public service announcements, and emergency support for public broadcasting and local journalism (for instance, through government health advertisements).
They argued that:“Resorting to other measures, such as content take-downs and censorship, may result in limiting access to important information for public health and should only be undertaken where they meet the standards of necessity and proportionality, “ adding,“Any attempts to criminalise information relating to the pandemic may create distrust in institutional information, delay access to reliable information and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression.”
Finally, the experts, aware of growing use of tools of surveillance technology to track the spread of the coronavirus, said while they “understand and support the need for active efforts to confront the pandemic, it is also crucial that such tools be limited in use, both in terms of purpose and time, and that individual rights to privacy, non-discrimination, the protection of journalistic sources and other freedoms be rigorously protected.”
They added that while we States must also protect the personal information of patients, they strongly urge that any use of such technology should abide by the strictest protection and only be available according to domestic law that is consistent with international human rights standards.