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UN chief warns pandemic fast becoming a human rights crisis

Some countries have penalized journalists and activists sharing information about their handling of COVID-19 under the pretext of protecting public health

A police officer sets up perimeter at a building under lockdown in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 15, 2020. (AP/Vincent Thian)
A police officer sets up perimeter at a building under lockdown in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, April 15, 2020. (AP/Vincent Thian)

UNITED NATIONS — UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday that the coronavirus pandemic is “a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis.”

The UN chief said in a video message that there is discrimination in the delivery of public services to tackle COVID-19 and there are “structural inequalities that impede access to them.”

Guterres said the pandemic has also seen “disproportionate effects on certain communities, the rise of hate speech, the targeting of vulnerable groups, and the risks of heavy-handed security responses undermining the health response.”

He warned that with “rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and a push back against human rights in some countries, the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures for purposes unrelated to the pandemic.”

Police officers prepare a drone to find residents who fail to comply with the stay-at-home order implemented due to the coronavirus pandemic in Szolnok, Hungary, April 13, 2020. (Janos Meszaros/MTI via AP)

In February, Guterres issued a call to action to countries, businesses and people to help renew and revive human rights across the globe, laying out a seven-point plan amid concerns about climate change, conflict and repression.

“As I said then, human rights cannot be an afterthought in times of crisis — and we now face the biggest international crisis in generations,” he said.

The secretary-general said he was releasing a report Thursday on how human rights must guide the response to the virus and recovery from the pandemic. Neither he nor the report name any countries or parties responsible for human rights violations.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres speaks to The Associated Press in Lahore, Pakistan on February 18, 2020. (AP Photo/K.M. Chaudhry)

Guterres said governments must be “transparent, responsive and accountable,” and stressed that press freedom, civil society organizations, the private sector and “civic space” are essential.

The report said governments also need to take action to mitigate the worst impacts of COVID-19 on jobs, livelihoods, access to basic services and family life.

Guterres said any emergency measures — including states of emergency — must be “legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory, have a specific focus and duration, and take the least intrusive approach possible to protect public health.”

“Emergency powers may be needed but broad executive powers, swiftly granted with minimal oversight, carry risks,” the report warned. “Heavy-handed security responses undermine the health response and can exacerbate existing threats to peace and security or create new ones.”

The report said the best response is proportionate to the immediate threat and protects human rights.

“The message is clear: People — and their rights — must be front and center,” Guterres said.

As governments across the world enact emergency measures to keep people at home and stave off the pandemic, some are unhappy about having their missteps publicized. Others are taking advantage of the crisis to silence critics and tighten control.

“COVID-19 poses significant threats to government and regime security as it has the potential to expose poor governance and lack of transparency on issues that affect every citizen in a given country,” said Aim Sinpeng, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Sydney.

“As the pandemic is a global issue and is constantly on the news around the world, governments have a harder time controlling messages to the public without exposing how little/how much they do in comparison to other countries around the world,” she said in an email interview.

In Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for 35 years, human rights group LICADHO has documented 24 cases of people being detained for sharing information about the coronavirus.

A local journalist, right, has her temperature checked to cover an event in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on March 28, 2020. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

They include four supporters of the dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Human Rights Watch also reported the arrest and questioning of a 14-year-old who expressed fears on social media about rumors of positive COVID-19 cases at her school and in her province. The group withheld more details to safeguard the girl’s privacy.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban may have been the most adroit at exploiting the health crisis.

His country’s Parliament granted him the power to rule indefinitely by decree, unencumbered by existing laws or judicial or parliamentary restraints. One aspect of the law ostensibly passed to cope with the coronavirus calls for prison terms of up to five years for those convicted of spreading falsehoods or distorted facts during the emergency.

“The global health problems caused by COVID-19 require effective measures to protect people’s health and lives,” acknowledged Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic. “This includes combating disinformation that may cause panic and social unrest.”

But she said, “regrettably some governments are using this imperative as a pretext to introduce disproportionate restrictions to press freedom. This is a counterproductive approach that must stop. Particularly in times of crisis, we need to protect our precious liberties and rights.”

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban replies to an independent MP during a question and answer session of the Parliament on a vote to approve legislation that extends a state of emergency and gives the government extraordinary powers to enact measures to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. MArch 30, 2020. (Zoltan Mathe/MTI via AP)

Lawmakers in the Philippines last month passed special legislation giving President Rodrigo Duterte emergency powers.

Duterte, already criticized for a brutal war on drugs that has left thousands dead, has been fiercely belligerent toward critics. The new law makes “spreading false information regarding the COVID-19 crisis on social media and other platforms” a criminal offense punishable by up to two months in jail and fines of up to 1 million pesos ($19,500).

At least two reporters have been charged by police with spreading false information about the crisis.

“It is feared that Duterte will use his increased authority to quell dissent and further pounce on (his) political enemies,” said Aries Arugay, associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines.

Egypt expelled a correspondent for the British newspaper The Guardian over a report citing a study that challenged the official count of coronavirus cases. Iraq suspended the operations of the Reuters news agency for three months and imposed a fine of about $20,800 for reporting that the actual number of infections and deaths was vastly more than the government acknowledged. Reuters stood by its story.

In Serbia, police briefly detained journalist Ana Lalic, who wrote about a lack of protective equipment and “chaotic” conditions at a large hospital complex. The clinical center said her article “disturbed the public and hurt the image of the health organization.”

President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte meets with President Reuven Rivlin (unseen) at the president residence in Jerusalem on September 4, 2018. (Ohad Zwigenberg/Pool/Yedioth Ahronoth/Flash90)

The government also closed its daily coronavirus news conferences for journalists, asking them to send their questions by email. It said it’s meant to stop the spread of the virus but rights groups and independent media decried it as a form of censorship.

A state of emergency invoked in late March gives Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha extraordinary powers to fight COVID-19, including censoring the media.

More than a dozen people in Thailand are reported to have been arrested on charges related to spreading coronavirus misinformation.

Thailand’s top public health experts deserve credit for their sincere efforts to counter misinformation, said Joel Selway, an associate professor of political science at Brigham Young University, who has published a book on politics and health policy in developing countries.

“This doesn’t mean that the Prayuth-led government would not also take advantage of this to crush political opponents,” he added.

The current crisis has also led to the spread of anti-Semitism. Earlier this week, Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, told reporters that “since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a significant rise in accusations that Jews, as individuals and as a collective, are behind the spread of the virus or are directly profiting from it.”

“The language and imagery used clearly identifies a revival of the medieval ‘blood libels’ when Jews were accused of spreading disease, poisoning wells or controlling economies.”

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