Southeast Asia: States must respect and protect rights in combating misinformation online relating to COVID-19

The ICJ today called on States in Southeast Asia to respect and protect human rights online and offline, in accordance with their obligations under international law, as they take steps to stop the spread of COVID-19.

It urged States to ensure that avoiding adverse impacts on the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, opinion, information and privacy are front and center when implementing measures to counter misinformation about the virus.

“This is a health emergency, unprecedented in modern times, that calls for urgent, targeted and effective responses by the State including measures to curtail false or misleading information about the spread of COVID-19,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Director for Asia and the Pacific.

“However, such measures must be implemented in accordance with rule of law principles, and their enforcement should protect the rights to health and life just as much as the rights to free expression, opinion, information and privacy.”

Governments in Southeast Asia have introduced and begun to enforce severe measures to control information online about the virus. This raises concerns about the potential for State over-reach in light of how Southeast Asian governments have historically enforced laws to curtail rights and censor content online in violation of international law. This trend was mapped out in its 2019 regional report.

The ICJ’s concerns has already been substantiated by recent actions taken by law enforcement authorities in some countries in the region. Arrests and detentions for online expression, in some cases without a warrant, have been reported in the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. Some of the laws in these countries which the ICJ had identified in its report as non-compliant with international human rights standards have been mis-used to arrest, detain and charge individuals accused of spreading false information online on the COVID-19 virus.

Legal provisions pursuant to which these arrests have been made carry significant criminal penalties including imprisonment terms and heavy fines – in some cases for merely expressing criticism of government measures on social media, such as complaints about inadequate screening measures or a lack of government preparedness.

“We urge governments not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The mere perception that the law is being used to suppress speech will only undermine the credibility of State institutions at a time when maintaining public trust is crucial,” said Rawski.

“Misinformation can be curtailed using less intrusive means than arrests, detentions and disproportionately onerous fines or imprisonment terms.”

To download the full statement with background information, click here.


Frederick Rawski, ICJ Asia Pacific Regional Director, e: frederick.rawski(a)

See also

ICJ, ‘Southeast Asia: ICJ launches report on increasing restrictions on online speech’, 11 December 2019

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