The Vienna, Austria, based International Press Institute (IPI), has warned against the abuse of emergency powers to stifle independent media, saying data available to it show that governments, especially those with existing authoritarian tendencies, are taking advantage of emergency legislation to crack down on media freedom, frequently on the pretext of combating the spread of “fake news.”
IPI Deputy Director Scott Griffen said: “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,”
Scott disclosed that “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.”
IPI cited several countries where sweeping powers have been given to the head of state to take drastic actions as they deem fit against the media.
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 gag 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, the Prime Minister and a few senior bureaucrats and military officers decide on policies.
It also cited Cambodia, where the cabinet of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for the past 22 years, has approved a draft law on the state of emergency that is expected to be passed by the National Assembly. Media reports say 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 warrant.
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”.
Independent media outlets in The Philippines have been barred from attending COVID-19 related briefings given by President Rodrigo Duterte who on March 26, 2020, signed a law giving himself special powers to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak in the country as well as imposing up to two months in jail or fines of around 18,000 euros for spreading “fake news”, a term for which there is no definition under Philippine law.
Europe is not left out as several governments there have immensely expanded their powers under the pretext of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be recalled that 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.
Similar laws have been passed to give wide powers to the heads of state of Romania, Honduras, and Serbia, among others.
On March 17, 2020, IPI, a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom, had cautioned that governments could use this health emergency as a pretext to censor news and information on-and offline or implement regressive regulations against media freedom.