More than 300 people in nearly 40 countries have been arrested and accused of spreading false information about COVID-19 since the beginning of the year.
Some countries justify the arrests as a crack-down on the spread of misinformation, but some human rights advocates are warning these aggressive measures are aimed at silencing criticism and controlling the virus narrative.
César Ricaurte, executive director of Fundamedios a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Latin-American journalists, said governments have used the health crisis to expand citizen surveillance and curb press freedom.
“This is especially notorious in Ecuador and in Argentina, where the so-called ‘virtual patrols’ are carried out,” Ricaurte said.
In Ecuador, police arrested a man for posting a photo that incorrectly suggested health-care workers at a local hospital didn’t have enough personal protective equipment. In Argentina, the country’s police arrested a woman for claiming a local official had contracted COVID-19 on a trip to Asia and was refusing to self-quarantine.
“Governments say it is to protect the public from false information, but the limits are not clear and freedom of expression is being affected,” Ricaurte said.
On March 21, Venezuelan Journalist Darvinson Rojas was arrested for “instigation” after reporting coronavirus statistics not yet released by the local government in the Venezuelan state of Miranda. He was released 12 days later.
On March 28, Ralph Zapata, regional editor of the Peruvian news outlet OjoPublico was arrested for allegedly violating that country’s curfew. He was released hours later after news outlets began to inquire about his detention.
There have been at least three arrests in the United States for social media posts about coronavirus. However, those cases involved posters making threats. On April 10, police in Page, Arizona, arrested a man who claimed all members of the Navajo Nation had coronavirus and threatened to shoot any he encountered. In March, a man in Texas was arrested for claiming to have contaminated a grocery store with COVID-19, and a man in North Carolina was arrested for making a similar claim in a Facebook live video.
Ricaurte said some governments have been using the COVID-19 pandemic to cut back on transparency. Both Honduras and Mexico have stopped processing public information requests, and Aruba has not classified journalists as essential workers, preventing them from leaving their homes to cover the crisis.
On April 9, Bolivia’s interim President Jeanine Áñez’s signed an executive order that locked down the country and decreed that “people who incite non-compliance with this Supreme Decree or who misinforms or generates uncertainty to the population, will be subject to criminal complaint for the commission of crimes against public health.”
International advocacy group Human Rights Watch released a statement strongly opposing the executive order, arguing its vague language could lead to abuse.
“Vigorous debate is the best medicine against incorrect information, not prison terms,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch.
The non-profit advocacy group Reporters Without Borders echoed Vivanco’s sentiments and suggested Chinese state censorship of COVID-19 reporting may have exacerbated the pandemic. Right now, RSF mantains #Tracker_19, a campaign to chronicle limits on free expression during the crisis.
The largest crackdowns have been in Asia, where Agence France-Presse reported roughly 266 individuals in 10 different countries had been arrested for spreading what was called “fake news” about COVID-19. AFP reported arrests ranging from a local Indian politician who accused the government of downplaying the virus to a middle-aged Sri-Lankan woman who posted on Facebook about the country’s president contracting the virus.
Uzair Rizvi, who contributed to the AFP reporting from India, said some of these cases are being prosecuted under a 19th-century colonial law called the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. This gives the government broad powers. He said the Indian government has used this law in the past, citing the 2018 Nipah Virus when seven people were arrested for spreading misinformation.
In a letter to the United Nations on Tuesday, RSF said it had cataloged press freedom violations in 38 countries related to COVID-19. The group called on the international body to condemn these actions saying individuals have a “right to information” in the midst of the global pandemic.
“The right to information consists of the freedom to seek, receive and access reliable information. Violating this right endangers the health and even the lives of human beings,” the letter said.