Coronavirus Has Started a Censorship Pandemic

Governments around the world are banning fake news about the crisis—and cracking down on their critics while they’re at it.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi are greeted by South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa
Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi are greeted by South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa in Johannesburg on July 27, 2018. MIKE HUTCHINGS/AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has caused governments all over the world to introduce drastic emergency measures, suspending many of the freedoms that citizens normally take for granted. Many of these measures are necessary in order to save lives. To “flatten the curve” through social distancing, we must be willing to sacrifice certain liberties for the safety of our colleagues, friends, and family.

However, an increasing number of governments are also using the current health emergency to suppress criticism and undesirable information through the proliferation of laws against disinformation. Free speech advocates have long warned against so-called fake news bans, fearing that they would prove to be, at best, a well-intended but ill-conceived effort to address a real problem and, at worst, another weapon in the authoritarian’s arsenal. Examples abound of these laws applied as a weapon against critics and dissidents, rather than a balm for misinformation. In countries such as Egypt and Singapore, applications of fake news restrictions have led to troubling prosecutions of lawyersanti-harassment activistsopposition politicians, and watchdog groups.

The current coronavirus outbreak has undoubtedly resulted in the viral spread of misinformation, a veritable “infodemic” that poses a challenge to containment efforts. Yet the fears that fake news laws are an antidote whose side effects may be worse than the disease are being borne out. Across the globe, illiberal leaders—facing questions about their preparedness to deal with a pandemic that has killed nearly 45,000 people, at a time when too few states appear to be equipped for the challenge—see fake news bans as convenient tools to suppress criticism and accurate information just as readily as misinformation.

In Cambodia, Human Rights Watch found that at least 17 people have been arrested on fake news charges for comments they made about the coronavirus. The detainees “include four members or supporters of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), all of whom remain in pretrial detention,” as well as a teenage girl who was arrested and subjected to police questioning about her social media posts expressing fear about potential positive diagnoses in her area.

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In Thailand, a man was arrested after complaining on Facebook about a lack of preventative measures at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. He wrote that the airport did not enforce any coronavirus screening against him or his fellow passengers returning from Barcelona, even though Spain now has more coronavirus cases than China, the original epicenter. His arrest is part of a larger effort to crack down on alleged “misinformation,” which happens to include criticism of Thailand’s response to the outbreak. These efforts include threats of lawsuits, firings, and punishment against journalists and medical staff who have pointed out the strain that the coronavirus is placing on the country’s public health system.

Turkey has unfortunately become infamous for its suppression of criticism under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. So it’s unsurprising that, as of a March 16 report, authorities had identified at least 93 suspects allegedly responsible for “unfounded and provocative” social media comments about the coronavirus, and they had arrested 19 of them. Reuters writes that the Turkish interior ministry was acting to arrest social media users whose posts were “targeting officials and spreading panic and fear by suggesting that the virus had spread widely in Turkey and that officials had taken insufficient measures.” But, only 10 days later, the New York Times reported a marked surge in Turkish coronavirus cases, outstripping rates in most other countries. While this is obviously politically inconvenient for the Turkish government, it might not be false, then, to suggest that Turkey, like the United States, Italy, and Spain, is insufficiently prepared for the threat of the coronavirus.

A number of other authoritarian and illiberal states such as Egypt, Azerbaijan, Russia, Iran, the Philippines, Honduras, and Singapore are taking similar steps by harassing journalistsadopting new laws specifically aimed at suppressing fake news, or using existing ones to target undesirable content on social media.

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However, even countries formally committed to democracy have been infected with the irresistible urge to fight the coronavirus with censorship. On its official home page, the South African government warns: “Anyone that creates or spreads fake news about the Coronavirus COVID-19 is liable for prosecution.” In India’s Himachal Pradesh state, a journalist was arrested on charges of spreading “fake news” about COVID-19 on social media.

And in Hungary, where democracy has long been in decline under the illiberal government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the coronavirus outbreak has offered Orban another opportunity to cement and drastically expand his authority. On March 30, the country’s parliament passed an emergency bill that gives Orban “sweeping powers to rule by decree, without a clear cut-off date,” according to the Guardian. One terrifying provision of the law? The introduction of “prison terms of up to five years for anyone publicising false information that alarms the public or impedes government efforts to protect people,” the Guardian reports. This bill, with its vague and broad definitions, is a gift to a proven authoritarian who has already made clear his distaste for journalists and critics.

The censorship bug has spread to social media platforms themselves. Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter walk a tight line between ensuring the spread of vital information to affected populations and limiting the virality of potentially harmful disinformation—some of it state-sponsored. But due to lockdown measures, the use of automated content moderation has increased on social media platforms where algorithms, rather than humans, have removed well-researched journalistic coronavirus stories from media outlets including the Atlantic and the New York Times. This unintended consequence vividly demonstrates the dangers of erring on the side of censorship in times of even real emergencies.

It’s true that many social media posts—and even government statements—about the coronavirus have been unwittingly inaccurate or, worse, intentionally false and intended to spread panic or bigotry. All may be deserving of responses, whether to ensure dangerous medical disinformation is countered with facts or to show support for groups that have been targeted with racist rhetoric. But “fake news” bans, and the harm they inflict upon civil society and aid they provide to authoritarians, are too tough a pill to swallow.

At a time when information and transparency are necessary to combat this pandemic, it is vital that government-led censorship be identified, exposed, and rejected. The devastating effects of censorship during China’s initial outbreak make this clear. Had China not engaged in censorship of information it claimed to be “false” in nearly every step of the outbreak—threatening or silencing doctors, whistleblowers, journalists, and social media users—it’s possible that its citizens would’ve been more prepared and taken better precautions that would’ve limited the spread. (This, of course, does not absolve such leaders as U.S. President Donald Trump who are responsible for their own failures to sufficiently prepare for the outbreak or warn their citizens about its dangers.)

The idea that governments should tolerate even false and misleading information is deeply counterintuitive at a time when people around the world are desperate for certainty and reliable information about an outbreak threatening millions of lives. In such times it is tempting to demand prompt and urgent action to combat those who undermine national and global efforts through disinformation. However, the feedback loop of information—much of which will be unreliable or wrong—is critical in efforts to identify the most efficient responses and communicate them to the public.

Harsh and unprecedented measures are needed to combat the coronavirus. But censorship is not part of the cure, and the more authoritarians use it, the more we’ll see that it’s a symptom of another disease.

Jacob Mchangama is the executive director of Justitia, a Copenhagen based think tank focusing on human rights and the rule of law and the host and producer of the podcast Clear and Present Danger: A History of Free Speech.

Sarah McLaughlin is a senior program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. The views expressed here are her own.