By Lahiru Pothmulla
UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet has expressed concern over alleged incidents of clampdown on freedom of expression including arrests of personnel for expressing discontent over COVID-19 situation in several Asia-Pacific countries including Sri Lanka.
In a statement, Ms. Bachelet said a clampdown on freedom of expression in parts of the Asia-Pacific during the COVID-19 crisis is prevalent and that any action taken to stop the spread of false information must be proportionate.
She said arrests for expressing discontent or allegedly spreading false information through the press and social media, have been reported in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
“In Sri Lanka, the Acting Inspector General of Police threatened to arrest anyone who allegedly criticises or highlights “minor shortcomings” of officials involved in the coronavirus response or who shares “fake” or “malicious” messages.
The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka on April 25 wrote a letter to the police informing them that any arrest for the mere criticism of public officials or policies would be unconstitutional. A number of individuals have been arrested over posts in their Facebook pages,” High Commissioner Bachelet said.
She said the COVID-19 pandemic had seen a further tightening of censorship in several countries, along with the arbitrary arrest and detention of people critical of their Government’s response or for simply sharing information or views about the pandemic.
She said many countries in the region already have laws governing alleged “fake news” and online media that raise human rights concerns.
“These laws have been used in other contexts to deter legitimate speech, especially public debate, criticism of government policy and suppress 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,” she said.