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UN raises concerns over “clampdown on freedom of expression” in Asia-Pacific countries amid COVID-19

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In the wake of concerns over rising cases of arrests and detainments in several countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights has expressed distress over threats to freedom of expression. In a report by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, Asia-Pacific governments have been asked to take appropriate action to curb the spread of false information which will protect and maintain the sanctity of freedom of expression.

According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic has witnessed unprecedented enforcement of censorship measures in several Asia-Pacific countries leading to arbitrary arrest and detention of people for being critical of their Government’s response to the pandemic or allegedly spreading misinformation regarding the health crisis. Incidents of arrests for expressing discontent and allegedly spreading false information have been reported in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam, the report noted. 

Across these countries, the High Commissioner has highlighted examples of such incidents in her report. 

In China, the UN Human Rights Office received information dozens of cases of detainment of medical professionals, academics, and other citizens questioning their government about the pandemic response. Similarly, reports have emerged in Bangladesh indicating arrests of dozens of people including journalists, human rights defenders, and health professionals under the Digital Security Act in the last three months for allegedly spreading misinformation about COVID-19 or criticizing the authorities. Over 50 people are reportedly under investigation in Indonesia under the criminal defamation law for the same reason. Several journalists and medical professionals are facing the wrath of the police force in India for their public criticism of the authorities’ response to the global health emergency. Sri Lankan police have issued threats of arresting people who will question or criticize the government’s action to the pandemic. 

Similar incidents of authoritarian actions on the government’s part have come to light in recent months across multiple countries in the Asia Pacific region. 

Taking cognizance of the crucial matter, the High Commissioner maintained that the pandemic crisis should not be used to restrict dissent or the free flow of information. Michelle Bachelet said that during these uncertain times, medical professionals, journalists, human rights activists, and the general public must be allowed to express opinions on paramount issues of public interest including health care facilities. 

The High Commissioner acknowledged that misinformation should be restricted for the protection of public, but it should not lead to any form of censorship which can undermine trust in the administration. She further asked the governments to ensure proportionate controlling of misinformation for the protection of freedom of expression.

“Measures should adhere to the principles of legality, necessity, proportionality, serve a legitimate public health objective and should be the “least intrusive” approach required to achieve that result,”  Michelle Bachelet asserted. 

However, it is important to note here that a number of Asia-Pacific governments have responded to the concerns raised by the UN Rights Chief, refuting her “claims” of a clampdown on freedom of expression made in her report. 

As per media reports, Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement maintaining that the references made in the UN statement did not reflect the facts and reality of press freedom in Nepal. The government of Cambodia also lashed out at the High Commissioner dismissing the statement. Responding to the UN Report, Cambodia’s Permanent Mission released a statement asserting that the government does not condone arbitrary arrest and detention and the country’s Constitution supports and protects freedom of expression.

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