New Delhi: After the United Nations human rights chief expressed alarm that Asian countries were clamping down on dissent during the COVID-19 pandemic, India, along with Southeast Asian countries, justified the curbs as being necessary to stop people from being “disengaged” from “science based information and policies” of government agencies
In a statement on June 3, UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet said that laws on “fake news” and online media were being used by countries to curb “legitimate speech, especially public debate, criticism of government policy and suppress freedom of expression”.
She specifically cited examples in 12 countries in Asia – Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
Two days later, eight of them wrote a joint statement that the UN human rights chief should be playing “a responsible role” that “adds rather than detracts” from the governments’ “primary focus” in keeping their population alive during the pandemic.
Among the countries named by Bachelet, China, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Malaysia did not join in the release of the joint statement.
On Friday evening, the Geneva-based permanent missions of the eight countries released the joint statement together. The Indonesian mission claimed in a separate press release and tweeted in Bahasa Indonesian that the joint statement was their brainchild, along with India.
(05/06) Indonesia berhasil inisiasi bersama India dg ajak anggota ASEAN 🇵🇭🇰🇭🇲🇾🇲🇲🇹🇭🇻🇳 melansir siaran pers bersama u/ tanggapi siaran pers Kantor Komisioner Tinggi HAM (KTHAM): “Asia: Bachelet alarmed by clampdown on freedom of expression during COVID-19.” https://t.co/N7GJZM2TbF
— IndonesianMissionGeneva (@IndonesiaGeneva) June 5, 2020
“In the context of the ongoing pandemic that has already strained our resources and capacities to the limit, our Governments reiterate the view that the spread of harmful misinformation and falsehoods that guide segments of the public to disengage themselves from crucial, science-based information and policies enacted by relevant government agencies, thereby worsening the spread of COVID-19, represents a clear and present danger to public health,” said the statement.
India 🇮🇳 in Geneva
Text of the Joint Press Release (issued by the Permanent Missions of India🇮🇳 @IndiaUNGeneva , Indonesia 🇮🇩 , Cambodia 🇰🇭, Malaysia 🇲🇾, Myanmar 🇲🇲, Philippines 🇵🇭, Thailand 🇹🇭 & Vietnam 🇻🇳 to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights @UNHumanRights pic.twitter.com/jtC5j62vB6
— India at UN, Geneva (@IndiaUNGeneva) June 5, 2020
It went on that the eight governments had taken necessary measures “to hold those who spread misinformation and mislead the public accountable for their irresponsible actions”.
These measures, they added, were carried out with due process of law, “while also safeguarding the freedom of expression, with the aim of curbing falsehoods that have harmed or have the potential to harm all sectors of society during this pandemic”.
Asserting that the primary focus of governments was not to lose “previous lives” to COVID-19, “the OHCHR (Office of the High Commission of Human Rights) needs to recognize this and play a responsible role in a manner that adds to rather than detracts from such efforts,” it said.
The examples cited by the UN human rights chief of India’s clampdown were the charges filed against journalists for criticising the government’s response to COVID-19, as well the Mumbai police’s gag order speaking against the Maharashtra state government’s functioning.
In India, several journalists and at least one doctor have been charged for their public criticism of the authorities’ response to the COVID-19. In Mumbai, the police went so far as to pass an order prohibiting “any person inciting mistrust towards government functionaries and their actions taken in order to prevent spread of the COVID- 19 virus and thereby causing danger to human health or safety or a disturbance to the public tranquillity”.
Of the dozen or so media personnel against whom the police in different parts of India have filed criminal cases, none has spread “harmful misinformation and falsehoods that guide segments of the public to disengage themselves from crucial, science-based information and policies enacted by relevant government agencies, thereby worsening the spread of COVID-19” and thereby representing “a clear and present danger to public health”.
All of the journalists have been targeted for highlighting inadequacies and shortcomings in the official handling of the pandemic or lockdown, or for reporting stories which politicians have not liked.
In a report dated May 7, Newslaundry listed that at least 24 mediapersons have been either picked up by police, sent notices, detained, first information report lodged against them, arrested and even assaulted.
This included the arrest of the founder and chief executive of an online web portal, SimpliCity, Andrew Sam Raja Pandian for a report on the challenges faced by healthcare workers and corruption at public distribution system outlet.
The list also includes The Wire’s founding editor, Siddharth Varadarajan, against whom two FIRs were filed by Uttar Pradesh police for a story reporting UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s violation of the national lockdown on March 25 and for misattributing a quote to the CM.
A freelance journalist in Andaman and Nicobar islands was arrested under Indian Penal Code and Disaster management act for posting question on Twitter about the quarantine policies of the local administration.
Bachelet had also referred to the May 23 order of the Mumbai police commissionerate that “prohibits any person inciting mistrust towards government functionaries and their actions taken in order to prevent spread of the COVID- 19 virus and thereby causing danger to human health or safety or a disturbance to the public tranquillity”.
After the police order, the opposition that it was response to their criticism of the Maha Vikas Aghadi coalition state government, comprising of Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Congress.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s Mumbai unit spokesperson Suresh Nakhua had tweeted that the emergency was in the “DNA of Congress and its allies”, along with a copy of the police order”.
The BJP is the principal opposition party in Maharashtra, but is at the helm in Central government.
The BJP-led Indian government has, of course, with the joint statement defended the promulgation of special rules that gave immunity against criticism to all authorities during this “unprecedented” period of the pandemic.
On Friday, India crossed Italy in the number of cases of COVID-19 infection, after the total rose to 2.35 lakh – the sixth highest in the world.