More Countries Pass ‘Fake News’ Laws in Pandemic Era

The Austria-based International Press Institute has tracked 16 countries that have passed new laws targeting misinformation about the coronavirus.

Russian army officers wearing face masks to protect against coronavirus walk in St. Petersburg last month. Russia passed a law in March that could see journalists and media organizations fined thousands of dollars for spreading so-called fake news about the virus. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (CN) — It took less than a month after its first confirmed case of Covid-19 for Hungary to pass legislation allowing for the jailing of anyone spreading misinformation about the disease. 

The legislation also allows Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree indefinitely and has been widely seen as a power grab by the far-right leader, who has been under fire for years for eroding democracy in the central European country.

“Corona laws are often being used as a façade for the decline of democratic institutions in countries like Poland and Hungary,” said Uladzislau Belavusau, a senior researcher at the Asser Institute’s Centre for International & European Law.  

In January, Dr. Li Wenliang, a Chinese doctor who was working at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, tried to warn officials about the new disease. Rather than heed his warnings, local police cautioned him for “making false comments” and forced him to sign a document that he was engaging in illegal activity. He later died of Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.  

China has some of the world’s strictest laws against the spread of misinformation. At least eight other people were warned at the same time as Wenliang. Beijing’s laws are not new, though, unlike a measure passed in Russia in March that could see journalists and media organizations fined thousands of dollars for spreading so-called “fake news” about the virus.

The Philippines and Vietnam have passed similar laws this year. The Serbian government arrested a journalist in April for reporting about a lack of personal protective equipment at a hospital under a new law that limits the sharing of news about Covid-19. 

The Austria-based International Press Institute has tracked 16 countries that have passed new laws targeting misinformation about the virus.

(Image courtesy of the International Press Institute)

“In all cases, the laws have been used to limit critical, legitimate reporting,” Barbara Trionfi, executive director of the International Press Institute, said during a webinar on fake news this week. 

“This approach is not effective,” said Marko Milanovic, a professor of public international law at the University of Nottingham School of Law. According to Milanovic, these laws are broadly used to limit criticism of the government rather than stop bad actors from spreading misinformation. 

For many countries, there was no need to pass new laws. Plenty of existing legislation was available. Multiple people have been arrested in India for sharing allegedly false information about the outbreak on social media. The government claims their actions violate a provision of the Indian penal code outlawing the circulation of rumors. A man in Kenya was arrested for spreading false information about Covid-19 on Twitter under a 2-year-old law that bans the sharing of fake news. 

“Everyone agrees misinformation is a problem,” said Milanovic, “but these laws have marginal if any benefit.”

A 2017 report from the European Union on misinformation found that so-called fake news was on the rise, but EU officials were skeptical of the value of laws outlawing it.

Jan Kleijssen, director of the EU’s Information Society and Action Against Crime Directorate, is quoted in the report as saying: “When we speak about freedom of expression today, we often hear a ‘but’ – and then mention is made of ‘hate speech’ and ‘fake news’. At the Council of Europe, we believe that we have to be very careful with that ‘but’ after freedom of expression.” 

The right to freedom of expression in Europe is protected by both the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights. Most European courts have been reluctant to curtail those rights, said María de Arcos Tejerizo, who studies public international law at Leiden University. 

A man is disinfected to prevent the spread of coronavirus in Manila, Philippines, on March 24. Hundreds have been arrested in Asia for posting allegedly false virus information. (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

The continent actually has a long history with laws targeting misinformation. Most countries in Europe have laws against denying the Holocaust, which were pushed by Germany and Austria in the 1990s. The EU itself has a law against incitement to hatred, which includes trivializing genocide.

Those laws aren’t simply on the books. Prominent right-wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen was fined three times for downplaying the Holocaust, including claiming there was not a mass murders of Jews. 

The European Court of Human Rights, which hears disputes involving the rights protected in the European Convention on Human Rights, has upheld prosecutions limiting expression in some hate-speech cases, but even that has not been absolute. A 2013 judgment from the court found in favor of an activist who was convicted in Switzerland of racial discrimination for denying the Armenian genocide.

The efficacy of the Holocaust denial laws, however, has been debated. Belavusau, of the Asser Institute, thinks that by prosecuting people for spreading fake news, governments simply give a bigger platform for people making those claims. 

But experts agree that laws over historical accuracy are different than those about the news during an active pandemic.

“The consequences are higher,” said Milanovic, the University of Nottingham professor.

Hundreds of people died from ingesting methanol in Iran after a rumor spread on social media that it would cure Covid-19. An American man died in March after self-treating with a fish tank cleaner that has the same active ingredient as chloroquine phosphate, after President Donald Trump touted chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as a possible cure.

“The remedy for bad speech is good speech,” Milanovic said when asked what works to combat misinformation.

Others point to more creative solutions.

Yordanka Ivanova, a researcher in international law at Sofia University in Bulgaria, argues that privacy regulations could curtail the spread of fake news. Limiting the amount of targeting social media companies could do, she said, could keep information from spreading widely and minimizes so-called filter bubbles, where people only see news information that aligns with their existing beliefs. 

It isn’t just preventing the spread of fake news that undermines basic human rights, said Tejerizo, of Leiden University. Fake news itself does.

“We have the right to form and hold our own opinions,” she said, adding you can’t do that without reliable information. 

While the internet might exacerbate the problem of fake news, it isn’t new.

“Propaganda is the oldest form of politician discourse,” Tejerizo said.

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