U.N. Rights Chief Alarmed at Asia-Pacific Crackdown on Freedom of Expression Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet voiced alarm Wednesday that curbs on freedom of expression had increased in 12 Asia-Pacific countries during the COVID-19 pandemic, with dictatorships and democracies alike stifling public debate in the name of fighting 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 said.

In remarks published Wednesday Bachelet said: “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.”

“In these times 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, and the distribution of relief items,” Bachelet added.

The office noted that in Vietnam, over 600 Facebook users were summoned by police for questioning over their online posts about COVID-19 since the start of the epidemic there.

In most cases, the Facebook users were handed administrative sanctions, and ordered to delete their posts, but at least two received criminal sentences for posting what the government called “fake news” about COVID-19. The sentences have included up to nine months of detention and fines exceeding U.S. $1,000.

The OHCHR said the increased restrictions during the pandemic added to “long-standing concerns” about the degree of Vietnamese media restrictions and sentencing in cases involving freedom of expression, both online and offline.

“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.

“It will also help countries to have a vibrant debate on the root causes and good practices needed to overcome the longer-term socio-economic and other impacts. This debate is crucial for countries to build back better after the crisis,” Bachelet said.

Liberal Publishing house wins Prix Voltaire

The UN warning came the same day that Vietnam’s Liberal Publishing House (LPH), its only independent publisher, was awarded the 2020 Prix Voltaire by the Switzerland-based International Publisher Association (IPA).

The prize “honors a person or organization adjudged to have made a significant contribution to the defense and promotion of freedom to publish in the world,” according to the IPA.

In operation since February 2019, the dissident founders of the Ho Chi Minh city-based Liberal Publishing House challenge government control of publication, delivering the non-fiction works of fellow dissident writers to locals in.

Its publications are considered illegal copying and distribution by the government, which has banned the publisher for anti-state activity. Penalties can include imprisonment for up to 20 years. As such the publisher must operate underground.

LPH was one of four nominees from the Asian region for the award, which included prize money of U.S. $10,400.

“I and the LPH’s other members were very happy when we were chosen for this prize, especially in the current circumstance, as there has been so much chaos occurring both in our country and all over the world,” Pham Doan Trang, spokeswoman for the LPH, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service Wednesday.

She acknowledged that the award would put the publisher in danger, implying that the increased notoriety might cause the government to intensify its crackdown against underground publishing.

“The point of our publishing operation is not only to enhance knowledge for the people, but also to be part of the fight for human and citizen rights in reading and writing, without censorship,” she added.

LPH has published about 25,000 copies of 30 books with titles like Politics for the Common People, Handbook for the Care of Prisoners, and others.

Last month Amnesty International reported that since early October 2019, police have harassed, and intimidated dozens of people “in what appears to be a targeted campaign” that had caught people in the major cities of  Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Hue, and the provinces of Binh Duong, Quang Binh, Quang Tri and Phu Yen.

People “believed to have either bought or read books printed by the publisher, or to have worked for the publishing house” have been summoned to local police stations and interrogated about books they bought from the publishing house,” Amnesty said.

Dissent is not tolerated in Vietnam, and authorities routinely use a set of vague provisions in the penal code to detain dozens of writers, bloggers, and activists calling for greater freedoms in the one-party communist state.

Estimates of the number of prisoners of conscience now held in Vietnam’s jails vary widely.

New York-based Human Rights Watch has said that authorities held 138 political prisoners as of October 2019, while Defend the Defenders has suggested that at least 240 are in detention, with 36 convicted last year alone.

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