India, few other Asian nations respond to UN human rights chief’s criticism

India and few other Asian nations on Friday responded strongly to UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, who had expressed “alarm” at “clampdown on freedom of expression” in some countries, saying the governments are focused on ensuring that precious lives are not lost due to the coronavirus pandemic and spread of “harmful misinformation” represents a clear danger to public health.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in a statement on June 3 had said that arrests for expressing discontent or allegedly spreading false information through the press and social media have been reported in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.

Bachelet had expressed “alarm” at the “clampdown on freedom of expression” in these Asia-Pacific nations during the COVID-19 crisis, saying any actions taken to stop the spread of false information must be proportionate. A joint press release issued by the Permanent Mission of India in Geneva and the Permanent Missions of Indonesia, Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights responded strongly to Bachelet’s remarks. “We reiterate that the primary focus of our governments in these unprecedented times is to ensure that precious lives, particularly of the most vulnerable, are not lost to COVID-19. The OHCHR (Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) needs to recognise this and play a responsible role in a manner that adds to rather than detracts from such efforts,” it said.

The countries said the ongoing pandemic has already strained their resources and capabilities to the limit. “Our governments reiterate the view that the spread of harmful misinformation and falsehoods that guide segments of the public to disengage themselves from crucial, science-based information and policies enacted by relevant government agencies, thereby worsening the spread of COVID19, represents a clear and present danger to public health,” the statement said.

The countries said their governments have taken necessary measures in accordance with their prevailing laws and regulations to hold those who spread misinformation and mislead the public accountable for their irresponsible actions. “These measures are carried out in accordance with the due process of law, while also safeguarding the freedom of expression, with the aim of curbing falsehoods that have harmed or have the potential to harm all sectors of society, during this pandemic,” the joint press release said.

Highlighting issues from the individual nations, Bachelet had said in India, several journalists and at least one doctor have been charged for their public criticism of the authorities’ response to the COVID-19. On Indonesia, she had said that at least 51 people were reportedly being investigated under the criminal defamation law for allegedly spreading “fake news” on the pandemic. The 51 include three men who were arrested for posting a message on social media claiming that an area of northern Jakarta had COVID-19 cases after the government sprayed disinfectant there. On Cambodia, the UN Human Rights Office said it has documented the arrest of 30 individuals, including six women and a 14-year-old girl, for COVID-19 related public comments and social media posts. PTI YAS SCY


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