A K M Zakir Hossain
Part-time Faculty at FGS, Mahidol University Thailand and Human Rights Defender Network (HRDN) member of Odhikar Bangladesh
COVID-19 presents a range of new challenges to democracy and human rights. Mobilizing an effective public response to an emerging pandemic requires clear communication and trust (Holmes, 2008; Taylor et al., 2009; van der Weerd et al., 2011; Vaughn and Tinker, 2011 cited in Allcott et al., 2020). Repressive regimes around the world have responded to the pandemic in ways that serve their political interests. COVID-19 is affecting 210 countries and territories around the world. The world has accepted a total of 292,913 deaths and 4,343,251 affected persons as on 13 May 2020 (Worldometer, 2020). On 11 March 2020, WHO declared that COVID-19 can be characterized as a pandemic (WHO, 2020).
With the rush of fear and anxiety around COVID-19 around the world, many people are wary about how the pandemic will impact our civil and political rights. Will government enforced quarantines or curfews impose on our right to move freely? In this critical moment, it’s crucial to be able to speak confidently about states’ obligations to protect human rights.
In response to the pandemic and to control the spread of the coronavirus, governments have taken emergency measures to flatten the curve or suppress the spread of the disease, many of which have compromised human rights and freedoms. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights views that restrictions taken to respond to the virus must be motivated by legitimate public health goals and should not be used simply to quash dissent. However, many governments seem to have crossed the line. In Bangladesh and Thailand, apart from restricting movement and regulating social interactions, governments appear to be cracking down on free speech, silencing those who have expressed their concerns over strict handling of the crisis.
Authorities have targeted academics, researchers, health professionals, and other people who speak about the government’s wrong actions or misplanning. In Bangladesh, the government has detained a number of people including academics, journalists and political party members for social media posts. It has been widely observed that the government of Bangladesh has been using the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018 to silence genuine concerns or criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis (HRW, 2020). Simultaneously, the Thai government applied the Computer Crimes Act, Article 116 and the Thai Criminal Code, Articles 326 to 333 to criminalize defamation, and ‘anti-fake news’ laws to monitor and suppress online content and prosecute individuals for various broadly defined violations of the law (AI, 2020; HRW, 2020).
Thai authorities are prosecuting social media users who criticize government in a systematic campaign to crush dissent which is being exacerbated by new COVID-19 restrictions (AI, 2020). The Bangladesh government started monitoring private television channels, printing and social media for “rumors” and “propaganda” regarding COVID-19 by issuing government circulars since 25 March 2020 and dozens of academics, researcher, students, and general people faced legal repression under the highly controversial DSA 2018.
In this situation, even academic work is under the spotlight of the government authorities. In Bangladesh, one researcher who attempted to publish a paper that examines the impact of COVID-19 based on epidemiological modeling was reportedly put under official investigation. This researcher first presented his paper in a report of the Imperial College (Elsland and O’Hare, 2020) that aimed to assist the government to enact policies to contain the spread of the virus in the country. In Thailand, an Amnesty International (AI) report says that Thai authorities are always watching human rights defenders, activists, politicians, lawyers and academics who described how the government criminalizes the right to freedom of expression to oppress those perceived to be critical of Thai authorities. “Through harassment and prosecution of its online detractors, Thailand’s government has created a climate of fear designed to silence those with dissenting views,” said Amnesty’s Senior Research Director Clare Algar.
Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put the right itself in jeopardy (UDHR, 1948; ICCPR, 1966).
Historically, pandemics, wars, and famines have led to the expansion of powers of the state at the expense of democratic rights and freedoms. These freedoms once lost, are not easily regained. And when it comes to downgrading democracy, the right to free speech tends to be the proverbial canary in the coal mine. According to Menon-Johansson (2005), “Only governments sensitive to the demands of their citizens appropriately respond to needs of their nation.” Moreover, it is a well-known communication principle that misinformation or fake news is better handled by authenticating information and creating awareness among the audiences, not by coercion.
Therefore, in this critical time, both the governments in Bangladesh and in Thailand should act democratically. The authorities should create civic space through national coordination with the experts and specialists to fight against the spread of the virus rather than combing social media and television channels or newspapers and arresting people for posting about COVID-19. It is the responsibility of the government to provide information necessary to protect and promote their rights, including the right to health. Both the authorities in Bangladesh and Thailand should also facilitate academic and research freedom by ensuring that every citizen is informed accurately about the spread and impact of the virus and at the same time all misinformation and fake news are tackled without harassing the people and without hampering their right to information and freedom of expression.
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