An elderly man looks out of his house next to a poster urging the public to not be a part of spreading fake news about COVID-19 coronavirus amid Vietnam's nationwide social isolation effort, in Hanoi on April 9, 2020.
AFP/Nhac Nguyen
Asia cracks down on virus 'fake news'
Katie Forster (Agence France-Presse) - April 10, 2020 - 5:01pm

HONG KONG, China — Hundreds of people have been arrested across Asia for posting purported false coronavirus information, according to an AFP investigation, deepening concerns that growing government efforts to combat "fake news" will target the wrong people and silence dissent.

From teenagers to a TV star, people have been wrongly detained under vaguely worded cybercrime laws or broad state-of-emergency powers ushered in since the outbreak began, rights groups say.

"Governments are using the 'fake news' label to dress up their rights-abusing efforts to censor views and statements that are at odds with whatever strategy they have taken to deal with the COVID-19 crisis," said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch (HRW).

"It's insane frankly. In many cases it's people being dragged out of their homes to the lock-up, put in pre-trial detention, in crowded spaces where they're more likely to get COVID."

At least 266 people have been arrested for posting coronavirus-related information in 10 Asian countries, from Thailand to India and Mongolia, according to an AFP tally based on police reports.

They include a local politician in India who claimed on Facebook that the government was downplaying virus fatalities, and a Malaysian TV personality made to pay a fine of several thousand US dollars after he posted a YouTube video criticising a hospital's handling of the pandemic.

Authorities say criminalisation is needed to curb the online flood of dangerous fake cures and conspiracy theories that the World Health Organization has called an "infodemic".

But HRW and other campaigners point to cases where opposition figures or journalists have been targeted -- as well as questioning the fairness of arresting ordinary people who may not even realise they are spreading misinformation.

A middle-aged woman in Sri Lanka spent three days in custody this week after posting a prank message on Facebook saying the president had tested positive for COVID-19, police said.

In Cambodia, a Facebook pundit who posted a quote from Prime Minister Hun Sen was charged with incitement to commit felony and is facing up to two years in jail, according to a court warrant seen by AFP.

Officials say Hun Sen was joking when he told motorbike taxi drivers to sell their vehicles if they cannot make money in the pandemic.

'Rumour mongering'

Cambodian authorities have also detained four opposition politicians, according to HRW, while a local rights group and police sources said a 14-year-old girl was among more than a dozen people arrested. She was released soon after questioning with no charges.

The surge in arrests in Asia focused on coronoavirus misinformation has come after various countries toughened laws or introduced new ones on so-called fake news.

"Regulating misinformation by either introducing new legislation or by expanding the scope of existing laws has been the trend in Asia for the last few years," said Masato Kajimoto, a journalism researcher at the University of Hong Kong.

The pandemic has accelerated this because a crackdown can be perceived as protecting public health, rather than infringing on freedom of speech, he said.

In Thailand, a state-of-emergency decree passed in late March criminalised sharing misinformation online about COVID-19 that could "instigate fear". 

This is on top of the Computer Crimes Act, which has a five-year maximum jail penalty and is often used to stifle dissent online.

The Philippines also recently adopted an emergency law giving it more powers to combat the pandemic, including arresting people who share false information about the disease.

Nearly 100 people in India have been arrested for spreading virus misinformation under existing penal laws and the disaster management act — with punishments including up to one year in prison.

"While India lacks any specific fake news law, there do exist provisions of laws that can be used for 'rumour mongering'," said Apar Gupta, director of the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation.

"It is fair to state that these laws are broadly phrased and can result in arbitrary action, given India's slow judicial system that also generally displays a prosecutorial bias," he said.

Karuna Nandy, an Indian Supreme Court lawyer, told AFP that such arrests were particularly alarming in a lockdown, when courts are mostly shut.

Hoax confusion

In Singapore, an anti-government website was blocked earlier this year under the city-state's controversial and sweeping new anti-misinformation law, passed in October.

Authorities accused the States Times Review of circulating falsehoods including about the coronavirus outbreak.

Police in neighbouring Indonesia have made more than 80 arrests under the country's strict electronic information law since the outbreak began. The maximum penalty is five years in jail.

They include individuals accused of attacking the government and its response to the outbreak, and multiple people who shared claims that a Muslim woman had died suddenly from COVID-19 at Jakarta's international airport.

Damar Juniarto, from digital rights group SAFEnet, said Indonesian law gives "no clear definition" of a hoax, which can be spread by accident.

"The source of the problem is that there is no information leadership from the government," said Juniarto. Indonesia's doctors association has warned that the crisis there is worse than officially reported.

HRW's Robertson echoed this sentiment. "People should not be criminalised for saying what they think online. It's up to the governments to provide effective information".

FAKE NEWS NOVEL CORONAVIRUS
As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: June 3, 2020 - 4:47pm

Follow this page for updates on a mysterious pneumonia outbreak that has struck dozens of people in China.

June 3, 2020 - 4:47pm

The Department of Health reports 751 new cases of the coronavirus disease, which brings the national tally to 19,748.

There are 90 new recoveries and eight new deaths.

June 3, 2020 - 7:43am

Brazil surpasses 30,000 deaths from the coronavirus outbreak on Tuesday as the disease continued to rip through South America's worst-hit country.

Figures released by the health ministry shows 1,262 deaths in the previous 24-hours, as well as 28,936 new infections. 

The overall number of cases — 555,383 — makes Brazil the second most affected country by the crisis after the United States in terms of infections. — AFP

June 3, 2020 - 7:19am

The novel coronavirus has killed at least 377,213 people since the outbreak first emerged in China last December, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP at 1900 GMT on Tuesday. 

At least 6,320,480 cases of coronavirus have been registered in 196 countries and territories. Of these, at least 2,662,300 are now considered recovered.

The tallies, using data collected by AFP from national authorities and information from the World Health Organization (WHO), probably reflect only a fraction of the actual number of infections. — AFP

June 2, 2020 - 4:47pm

The Department of Health reports 359 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the national tally to 18,997.

There are 84 new recoveries and six new deaths.

June 2, 2020 - 10:27am

The novel coronavirus has killed at least 373,439 people since the outbreak first emerged in China last December, according to a tally from official sources compiled by AFP at 1900 GMT on Monday. 

At least 6,220,110 cases of coronavirus have been registered in 196 countries and territories. Of these, at least 2,599,500 are now considered recovered.

The tallies, using data collected by AFP from national authorities and information from the World Health Organization (WHO), probably reflect only a fraction of the actual number of infections. — AFP

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