The spread of misinformation around COVID-19 has prompted governments and tech giants to act swiftly and take strict measures to curb it. Some countries have made provisions for arrests, while others have imposed hefty fines to help contain the spread of misinformation.
However, human right activists and researchers argue that these measures stifle freedom of expression and might not help in solving the problem of dis/misinformation. Rather, they believe that the government should create an inducive environment, which can help create awareness about fake news.
Various research papers published in reputed journals have showed how misinformation related to COVID-19 has had serious health implications. One such study, published in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, shows that at least 800 people died globally due to COVID-related misinformation.
Another study shows an exponential increase in fact-checks around the coronavirus.
The rise in misinformation being shared on social media is evident. But to what extent are the measures implemented by the governments helpful? In fact, what are those measures?
What Has the Indian Government Done?
In March, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had issued an advisory to social media companies to initiate awareness campaigns, take immediate action to disable/remove false content hosted on their platforms, among others.
Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, along with WhatsApp, had also launched a helpline to deal with information and queries related to the pandemic.
Speaking to The Quint, Avinash Kumar, executive director, Amnesty International India said that some measures taken by the government have “unreasonably restricted people’s right to freedom of expression”.
He also added that these measures have "unreasonably restricted people’s right to freedom of expression, particularly those of journalists”.
Speaking of the critical reportage by the media, Kumar said, “Blanket prohibitions, similar to those imposed by the Government of India are incompatible with the international human rights standards. They restrict free flow of information and debate and penalise journalists and human rights defenders from carrying out their legitimate activities such as critical reporting.”
Till April, as per the data from several police officers across the states, over 600 cases had been filed against people for allegedly circulating false information around the coronavirus pandemic.
In many cases, the police had booked the accused under Section 54 of the Disaster Management Act (DMA), 2005, and Section 505 (1) (b) of the Indian Penal Code.
Fines, Imprisonment, Websites Blocked
The Human Rights Watch stated that the Thai government should stop using“anti-fake news” laws against people who question the government’s response to the pandemic.
Brad Adams, Asia director, Human Rights Watch, says that “Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the COVID-19 crisis. The Emergency Decree provides the government a free hand to censor free speech.”
Meanwhile, among several other countries that have imposed strict policies and laws for curbing misinformation is Philippines, where the police had initiated a probe into 23 people for “spreading unverified and false information on the COVID-19 outbreak.”
‘Fake News Laws Used Against Journalists’
Julie Posetti, global director of research at the International Center for Journalists told First Draft that there are instances when journalists have been detained when their reportage has been critical of the government’s response to the pandemic. “...and that is deemed to be ‘fake news’ because it doesn’t suit the government.”
She further said:
“If you can’t have doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers speaking publicly about failures of the system where it’s in the public interest to do so, because they’re afraid of being jailed on so-called ‘fake news’ laws because the government equates criticism with fakery, you have a really serious problem.”
Experts on How to Deal With Misinformation
Aniruddh Nigam, a research fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy opined that criminal liability is not the way forward, rather the governments should work towards enhancing reader literacy and enabling them to tell between what is fake and what is real.
Meanwhile, Kumar said that the best way to minimise the risk involved with misinformation is “for the authorities to counter it with a reliable and prompt system of accurate information. Most importantly, it would lead to increased trust by the general public, which is important for a faster and just recovery from the pandemic.”
While the barrage of COVID-19 misinformation that people are exposed to needs to be tackled and the governments across the world have come up with ways for curbing the spread of fake news, but the question remains how far have these measures actually helped in solving the problem.
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