Freedom of expression is the cornerstone upon which the very existence of democratic society exists, according to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It is indispensable for the formation of public opinion, for scientific knowledge, and for society to be sufficiently informed and, in consequence, truly free. This is the case in ordinary times and, perhaps even more so, in extraordinary times, such as the current global health emergency caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, under the cover of Covid-19 response, some governments in the Americas have taken steps to criminalize free speech, restrict access to public information, or spread pandemic-related disinformation. These actions contrast with those of other governments that took decisive steps to confront the pandemic without recurring to censorship, as well as governments that corrected early missteps to ensure their public health response was compatible with freedom of expression.
This report from the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program and Edison Lanza, an expert on freedom of expression and the current special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Organization of American States, provides a succinct assessment of freedom of expression developments in the Americas in the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic.
THREE CONCERNING TRENDS:
- Increased pressure against journalists and media outlets, including physical harm and harassment, arrests and prosecutions, and an ever-more-challenging working environment. Governments have a duty to ensure that journalism thrives and plays its essential role during the pandemic, as the protection of the media is a protection of the public’s right to information. Journalists and the media, as well as medical professionals and relevant experts, should be able to speak and report freely on Covid-19, including coverage that is critical of government responses, without fear or censorship.
- Limits on transparency and access to information. States have active and passive obligations in the area of government transparency. In the context of Covid-19, this includes a duty to proactively report in detail on the impact of the pandemic and on emergency spending, and to prioritize requests for access to information related to the public health emergency while refraining from general limits on accessing public information and arbitrary restrictions on journalists’ access to official sources.
- Online misinformation and disinformation, in some cases promulgated by public officials. The spread of misinformation online regarding the Covid-19 pandemic led the WHO to refer to the public health emergency as an “infodemic,” or “an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” Governments and internet platforms have a duty to counter and be transparent about misinformation regarding the pandemic.