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New Report Examines Restrictions on Freedom of Expression during COVID-19 in Select Jurisdictions

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The permeation of misinformation and disinformation relating to any conceivable issue, particularly on social media platforms, is rampant. This problem has become particularly acute with the advent of the COVID-19 global pandemic. A policy document issued by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCED) described the ubiquity of false information and the challenge it presents in fighting the pandemic as follows:

The harmful effects of disinformation about COVID-19 cannot be overstated. Data from Argentina, Germany, Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States show that about one in three people say they have seen false or misleading COVID-19-related information on social media. Research has also shown that COVID-19 disinformation is disseminated significantly more widely than information about the virus from authoritative sources like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. By calling into question official sources and data and convincing people to try bogus treatments, the spread of dis- and misinformation has led people to ingest fatal home cures, ignore social distancing and lockdown rules, and not to wear protective masks, thereby undermining the effectiveness of containment strategies.

While some countries have focused more on awareness campaigns to counter this problem, others have gone further. A new report by Law Library of Congress staff, Freedom of Expression During COVID-19, examines laws aimed at regulating mass media and restrictions on the distribution of information during the COVID-19 pandemic in the following 20 jurisdictions around the world: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, El Salvador, India, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, MauritiusMoldova, Nepal, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russian Federation, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

The map below shows how the surveyed jurisdictions are dealing with alleged spreading of misinformation about COVID-19.

The map shows legal acts in mass media in select jurisdictions. Created by Susan Taylor, Law Library of Congress, based on surveys in “Freedom of Expression during COVID-19” (Law Library of Congress, September 2020).

The report found that while all the jurisdictions surveyed for the report guarantee freedom of expression in their constitutions, most have imposed restrictions on its exercise. The limitations vary in form and severity, ranging from restrictions on media freedoms (including censorship of content relating to the pandemic and restrictions on movements of journalists); to amendments of criminal laws banning dissemination of false information, including through social medial platforms; to the use of existing laws that bar the spread of information to make arrests and pursue prosecutions; to changing laws relating to mass media and internet resources to hold accountable communications network operators. The consequences of violations of such restrictions also vary widely.

The report found that, in a few jurisdictions, pressure campaigns forced governments to scale back restrictions on freedom of expression. In a couple of jurisdictions, the restrictions survived challenges in court.

If you are interested in more pandemic related issues, please take a look at two other reports the Law Library published recently: Regulating Electronic Means to Fight the Spread of COVID-19 and Regulation of Wild Animal Wet Markets. More resources can also be found on this blog and in the Global Legal Monitor. You can receive alerts when new blog posts, Global Legal Monitor articles, and reports are published by clicking the “Subscribe” button on the Law Library’s website.

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