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COVID-19 puts the spotlight on those who govern us (Demo)

With countries across Europe and Central Asia imposing rights-restricting lockdowns and declaring states of emergency, COVID-19 is shining a spotlight on who we really are. All governments are facing the challenge of balancing a duty to protect public health with the rights to free expression, free assembly and access to information. Some are managing that balancing act worse than others. And some, unsurprisingly, seem to be exploiting the global pandemic for their own domestic ends or international goals.

Access to information in the age of COVID-19

The right to access accurate information is absolutely essential if we are to protect ourselves during the pandemic, and the role of government and an independent media is integral to this.

Part of providing access to accurate information involves de-bunking the disinformation that is currently being spread about the virus. As Josep Borrell, head of the European External Action Service, said at a press conference in late March: “Disinformation is playing with people’s lives. Disinformation can kill.”

In Russia, pro-Kremlin media have been promoting lies and conspiracy theories about COVID-19. The EUvsDisinfo website has recorded multiple claims by Putin-friendly press that the virus is “not dangerous”, that it can be “cured with saline”, that it is leading to the collapse of the EU, that there are no doctors to treat it in Lithuania, and that Bill Gates and George Soros are somehow behind the pandemic.

In addition to this, Russia’s state media regulator, Roskomnadzor, is cracking down on independent media. It ordered two media outlets – radio station Ekho Moskvy and news site Govorit Magadan – to remove articles about the COVID-19 outbreak from their websites and social media. Ekho Moskvy was told to take down an interview with a disease expert who compared the authorities’ management of the pandemic to the Chernobyl disaster. Govorit Magadan was forced to block access to a story about a local resident who died in hospital and who was suspected of having contracted the virus. Roskomnadzor has published a warning that it will take punitive measures against the “dissemination of false information” and attempts to “sow panic among the public and provoke public disturbance”.

On 30 March, the lawmakers in Hungary passed legislation that handed Prime Minister Orbán sweeping new powers, enabling to him to effectively rule by decree and exert even greater control over the Hungarian media. The new legislation is ostensibly intended to help in the fight against COVID-19, but it will allow Orbán to extend the current state of emergency indefinitely and punish those who spread “false information” about the virus with up to five years in prison. Orbán has frequently accused the few remaining independent media outlets in Hungary of peddling false information. Before the vote, IFEX members wrote to the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament, stressing that the “free flow of independent news is more essential than ever” and calling on the presidents to “make it clear that the European Union will not accept the application of emergency legislation that undermines fundamental human rights and media freedoms”.

Other states are also legislating with the declared aim of tackling mis/disinformation.

Armenia declared a state of emergency in mid-March. One of the provisions is a ban on publishing reports or articles about COVID-19 that do not come from a government or other countries’ official sources. According to reports, police are now ordering journalists to delete articles or comments on social media.

In Romania, President Klaus Werner Iohannis has signed an emergency decree which allows the National Authority for Administration and Regulation in Communications to order take-down notices for websites and news reports containing “fake news”. The European Federation of Journalists highlighted concerns it shared with Romanian journalists that these measures could lead to self-censorship.

The parliament of Azerbaijan passed a law this month with the stated aim of fighting against COVID-19 disinformation. The law obliges the owner of any internet information resource not to publish false information online (including information that poses a threat to the life, health and property of the population or public safety). The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Harlem Désir, warned that the law extended to the publication of information unrelated to the pandemic.

In Turkmenistan, severe measures have been introduced in an attempt to stem the spread of the virus, but, according to Fergana News, these are not being reported by the state media. Instead, the government strategy seems to be to discourage people from thinking about COVID-19 altogether: it has even removed mention of the virus from a recent official anti-epidemic leaflet. Fergana News reports that the government tried to ban the wearing of medical masks by citizens, because they were “an incitement to panic”. There are also reports that the authorities have begun arresting people who speak about COVID-19 in public places, and that they are using their web of agents to eavesdrop on conversations on buses, in queues etc.

IFEX members and other free press organisations wrote a letter to Slovenia’s Minister of the Interior, calling on the government to end the campaign of harassment it had initiated against Reporters Without Borders’ Slovenian correspondent, Blaž Zgaga. Zgaga sent a freedom of information request to the government in order to get information on the functioning of the newly-founded Crisis Headquarters (in charge of combating COVID-19). Instead of providing a standard response, the Crisis Headquarters tweeted that Zgaga was one of “four patients who escaped from quarantine”, all of whom had “a COVID-Marx/Lenin virus”. Media owned by the far-right ruling party also began smearing him and Zgaga soon started receiving death threats via social media.

In Albania, Vodafone users received an unexpected recorded message from Prime Minister Rama this month: “Wash your hands, don’t move from your house for pleasure, open windows as much as you can, protect yourself from the media”. Rama has a fractious relationship with journalists, and recently promoted draft legislation that would restrict media freedom. Customers of Telekom Albania reportedly received a more useful message that advised them to protect themselves from false information.

Belarus’s President Lukashenko peddled disinformation this month by dismissing COVID-19 as “a psychosis” and recommending vodka, saunas and driving tractors as ways of warding off the virus.

Journalists behind bars at increased risk

Human Rights Watch called on Kyrgyzstan to immediately release imprisoned journalist and human rights defender Azimjon Askarov. He is currently serving a life prison sentence on trumped-up charges and his appeal hearing at the Supreme Court, scheduled for 6 April 2020, may be delayed due to the COVID-19 state of emergency. Askarov has suffered from various ailments for a number of years, and continued confinement increases the risk to his health.

In Turkey, there were reports that the government is preparing to release nearly 100 thousand inmates in order to limit the spread of COVID-19 in prison. However, it seems that political prisoners – those jailed on ludicrous terrorism-related charges such as lawyers, journalists, politicians, artists, judges and prosecutors, human rights defenders – are not included in the plan.

IFEX members and other press groups issued a joint statement calling on the Turkish authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release journalists, human rights defenders and others who have been charged or convicted simply for exercising their rights” and “give urgent consideration to the release of those who have not been convicted of any offence and those who are at particular risk in prison from a rapidly spreading disease”.

The Turkish authorities have arrested hundreds of people in connection with “provocative” social media posts about COVID-19. Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu said that the detainees had been trying to “stir unrest”.

Gender focus

While there were marches and events around the globe celebrating International Women’s Day, some countries in Europe and Central Asia witnessed shameful, often violent attempts to suppress them.

In Kyrgyzstan, women marchers in Bishkek were assaulted by a group of male nationalists. Police detained approximately 70 people during the attack – all of them women.

In Turkey, police used tear gas on a group of women marchers who had refused to disperse near Taksim Square, Istanbul.

Good news in brief

There was excellent news from Azerbaijan, where independent journalist Afgan Mukhtarli was released after his six-year prison sentence was commuted. In 2017, Mukhtarli was abducted in Georgia and transported to Azerbaijan, where he was convicted on trumped-up smuggling charges.

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