In the news: Rights group warns against coronavirus ‘fake news’ prosecutions

‘It’s absurd, and wholly disproportionate, that people are facing a potential five-year jail term just for sharing false information online.’

An illustration of the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) behind the outbreak of the respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. The image was released by the Centres for Disease Control, Atlanta.
An illustration of the Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) behind the outbreak of the respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China. The image was released by the Centres for Disease Control, Atlanta. (REUTERS)

Southeast Asian governments are using controversial “fake news“ laws to crack down on misinformation about the coronavirus outbreak, a regional rights group warned.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, or APHR, says countries are pursuing excessive prosecutions against people accused of spreading false information about the virus, which has sickened at least 45,000 people, mainly in China, and spread to at least two dozen countries.

In some cases, prosecutions hinge on laws that could be used to censure anti-government critics. Thailand, for example, has reportedly arrested two people under its Computer-related Crime Act – a law that limits free speech and targets activists, rights groups say. They face five-year prison terms if convicted, according to APHR. Malaysia and Indonesia have also made similar arrests.

Read more → Mapped: Where the coronavirus is spreading.

“It’s absurd, and wholly disproportionate, that people are facing a potential five-year jail term just for sharing false information online,” said Teddy Baguilat, a former congressman from the Philippines.

Instead, APHR is calling on governments to boost emergency health campaigns and media literacy.

The World Health Organisation says a glut of information, some of it false or misleading, is causing an “infodemic” around the coronavirus outbreak.

In many at-risk countries local Red Cross societies have prioritised public communications campaigns meant to promote reliable information and stave off rumours and panic.

One thing we do now know for sure: the name of the virus. It is now officially called Covid-19.

– Irwin Loy

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