Multiple news resources are reporting hundreds of people across Asia who have been arrested for posting and spreading false information related to coronavirus. The government’s growing efforts to combating fake news may target the wrong people and suppress dissent. Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, many people have been detained wrongly under the cybercrime laws or state-of-emergency powers.
Phil Roberston, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch (HRW) said that governments are using the label of ‘fake news’ to cover up the right-abusing effort to censor opinions and views that are different from their selected strategy for the COVID-19 crisis. In many cases, many people have been put in pre-trial detention and lock-up, in crowded spaces where chances of getting an infection are more.
According to the tally based on police reports, around 266 people have been arrested in 10 different Asian countries for posting fake or false information related to coronavirus.
A local Indian politician claimed that the government was downplaying the coronavirus fatalities. A Malaysian media personality made to pay a fine of several thousand dollars because of his Youtube video in which he criticized the hospital’s handling of the outbreak. Authorities said that criminalization is needed for curbing the flood of conspiracy theories and fake cures. The World Health Organization has called it the “infodemic.”
HRW and other campaigners point to the cases where journalists and opposition figures have been targeted. They also questioned the fairness of arresting people who may not even realize that they are spreading the fake or misinformation.
A middle-aged lady in Sri Lanka was arrested and spent three days in custody because she posted a prank message on her Facebook saying that the president has tested positive for coronavirus. In Cambodia, a person who posted a quote from Prime Minister Hun Sen on Facebook is facing more than two years in jail, with the charge of committing a felony.
According to HRW, the authorities have also detained four politicians in Cambodia, a 14-year-old girl was also arrested among more than a dozen ordinary people. The surge in arresting people in Asia focused on virus-related misinformation has come after several countries have strict their laws and made new ones to combat fake news.
A journalism researcher at the University of Hong Kong, Masat Kajimoto said that regulating false information by making new laws or by expanding the strictness of the already existing law has been the trend for the last few years in Asia. COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend because clampdown can be perceived as protecting public health instead of infracting the freedom of speech.
In Thailand, the order of a state-of-emergency passed which criminalized sharing virus-related fake or false information that might instigate fear. This is on the top of the Computer Crime Act, which has a jail penalty of a maximum of five years.
In India, almost a hundred people have been arrested for sharing fake news under the disaster management act and existing penal law including more than a year in jail. Director of the Dheli-based Internet Freedom Foundation, Apar Gupta said that while India lacks specific fake news law but there exist provisions of legislations that can be used for rumors mongering. These legislations are broadly phrased and may result in arbitrary actions.
The Philippines also made an emergency law for combating the pandemic by arresting people who share misinformation about the COVID-19.
In Singapore, an anti-government website has been blocked under the state’s controversial and sweeping new false information law. In Indonesia, the police have arrested more than 80 people under electronic information law with the penalty of five years in prison.