The High Commissioner for Human Rights focuses on 12 countries, including the Philippines, Myanmar, China, India, Thailand and Nepal. The situation in Vietnam, where 600 people have been targeted for their social media postings, is worrisome. An independent publishing house in Ho Chi Minh City wins the 2020 Prix Voltaire.
Ho Chi Minh City (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The United Nations is concerned that the emergency triggered by the novel coronavirus pandemic is being used by many Asia-Pacific governments, be they liberal democracies or dictatorial regimes, as a pretext to limit freedom of expression and citizens' rights.
Michelle Bachelet UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) warns that in the age of COVID-19, at least 12 countries in the region have curbed the public debate in the name of the fight against fake news.
“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,” the High Commissioner’s office said.
In many countries, laws on alleged fake news raise human rights concerns and “have been used in other contexts to deter legitimate speech, especially public debate (and) criticism of government policy,” it added.
“While Governments may have a legitimate interest in controlling the spread of misinformation in a volatile and sensitive context, this must be proportionate and protect freedom of expression," Bachelet said.
At a time of “great uncertainty, medical professionals, journalists, human rights defenders and the general public must be allowed to express opinions on vitally important topics of public interest, such as the provision of health care and the handling of the health and socio-economic crisis,” she added.
The High Commissioner’s office noted that in Vietnam, more than 600 Facebook users were summoned by police for questioning over their online posts about COVID-19 since the start of the epidemic in that country.
In most cases, the Facebook users were handed administrative sanctions, and ordered to delete their posts, but at least two received criminal sentences that included up to nine months of detention and fines exceeding US$ 1,000.
“This crisis should not be used to restrict dissent or the free flow of information and debate. A diversity of viewpoints will foster greater understanding of the challenges we face and help us better overcome them,” said the High Commissioner.
The UN warning about respect for rights in the Asian country comes at the same time when a Vietnamese publishing received a prestigious prize. The Liberal Publishing House (LPH), the country's only independent publisher, won the 2020 Prix Voltaire awarded by the Switzerland-based International Publisher Association (IPA).
In operation since February 2019, the Ho Chi Minh city-based LPH has challenged government control of publishing, delivering works of local dissident writers. Often it has had to operate underground with the risk of penalties of up to 20 years.