In the past three months, COVID-19, the disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus, has exploded across the globe. The spread of the virus has been matched by the proliferation of Freedom of expression has been one of the casualties of the epidemic, as some governments have used censorship, arrests and the application of repressive laws to address these challenges and control public narratives about the crisis.

In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) raised concerns about an infodemic caused by a flood of false and misleading information about COVID-19. Social media posts viewed more often than information from authoritative sources. At times untruths creep into the reporting of traditional media outlets. In many instances, misinformation has diverted the attention of policymakers, fostered distrust in governments, and sowed confusion among the public.

The COVID-19 outbreak has also stoked fear, discrimination and intolerance in many parts of may be followed by discrimination or violence.

In their efforts to address these challenges, governments have at times embraced heavy-handed – emergence impaired the initial response to the outbreak. Governments in Southeast Asia have relied on repressive legislation to arrest and charge those spreading supposedly false information about COVID-19. The Iranian authorities have arrested social media users posting about the virus while simultaneously suppressing information about the outbreak.

Independent journalism, citizen reporting, open public discourse and the free flow of information are indispensable in the global effort to counter COVID-19. Governments must develop policies and responses to the outbreak that embrace freedom of expression and access criminal sanctions should be replaced with those emphasising transparency and media freedom.

The media and social media companies must also contribute to the fight against misinformation related to the COVID-19 crisis. Journalists should report accurately and without bias, investigate propaganda campaigns and official discrimination, and make sure there is the right of correction and reply. Social media companies should continue to work with the WHO and health authorities to promote dissemination of accurate, authoritative information about COVID-19. They should also ensure adverse actions taken against misinformation and hate speech are based on clear and easily understood policies and backed by due process guarantees. 

Download the full Article 19 Policy Briefing “Viral Lies: Misinformation and the Coronavirus” here