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Watchdog Denounces ‘Unprecedented’ Attacks By Russia, China On Freedom Of Expression During Pandemic

Amnesty International says Russia, China, and many other countries have put in place “oppressive laws” that have restricted the right to freedom of expression and silenced critics during the coronavirus pandemic.

Combined with a “flood of misinformation” across the world, attacks on freedom of expression by governments have had “a devastating impact on peoples’ ability to access accurate and timely information to help them cope with the burgeoning global health crisis,” the London-based human rights group said in a report released on October 19.

“Throughout the pandemic, governments have launched an unprecedented attack on freedom of expression, severely curtailing peoples’ rights,” the group’s senior director for research advocacy and policy, Rajat Khosla, said in a statement.

“Communication channels have been targeted, social media has been censored, and media outlets have been closed down,” Khosla added.

According to Amnesty International, freedom of expression “is vitally important because a free flow of accurate, evidence-based and timely information increases awareness about health risks and how to prevent and deal with them.”

In Russia, the existing legislation against “fake news” was expanded in April 2020, and criminal penalties were introduced for “public dissemination of knowingly false information” in the context of emergencies.

The amendments have been described as part of the authorities’ response to COVID-19, but Amnesty International said these measures will remain in force beyond the pandemic.

“It’s clear COVID-19 related restrictions on freedom of expression [in Russia] are not just time-bound, extraordinary measures to deal with a temporary crisis,” Khosla said.

“They are part of an onslaught on human rights that has been taking place globally in the last few years – and governments have found another excuse to ramp up their attack on civil society,” he said.

The report — titled Silenced And Misinformed: Freedom Of Expression In Danger During COVID-19 — singled out China’s suppression of information about COVID-19 as a particularly fateful example.

As early as December 2019, health workers and citizen journalists in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus was first detected, tried to draw attention to the outbreak of the then-unknown disease.

By February 2020, the Chinese authorities had opened thousands of criminal investigations against individuals who published information about the outbreak.

The report also said that “the onslaught of misinformation — whether that be through social media companies or people in a position of power seeking to spread division and confusion for their own gain — is posing a serious threat to the rights to freedom of expression and to health.”

In this context, it is “increasingly difficult for individuals to have a fully informed opinion and make educated choices about their health based on the best available scientific facts” about COVID-19, it said.

Reference