A Pandemic of Censorship Under the Pretext of "Fighting Disinformation" about the Coronavirus

The pandemic caused by the spread of the new Coronavirus has posed several challenges to the modern world. When talking about the damage caused by the pandemic, we should first mention the millions of death toll and the crisis caused by the economic downturn. In addition to these acute problems, some issues are currently, to some extent, in the background, although neglecting them will have terrible consequences in the long run. One such issue is the protection of the right to free access and dissemination of information, as freedom of speech is a fundamental right that is closely linked to the exercise of other rights. It is the best tool for the individual to pass their voice to the public. Unfortunately, in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, this right has been severely curtailed in many countries worldwide.

It could be argued that the restriction on freedom of speech even helped to spread the Coronavirus on a large scale. If not for the Chinese communist government, which responded to the spread of information about the initial outbreak of the virus with severe censorship, the world pandemic might have been averted. 

Following the declaration of a pandemic by the World Health Organization (March 11, 2020), dozens of countries worldwide have taken stringent measures against free speech. According to Human Rights Watch, there have been reports of journalists being arrested and physically assaulted in many countries; traditional and social media censorship intensified. Representatives of the medical field were banned from speaking freely about the virus and governments' response to it; Various restrictive legislative norms have been introduced to censor independent sources. Attempts to restrict freedom of speech in one form or another have been made in at least 83 countries.

Since the onset of the pandemic, dozens of countries have introduced new legislation or made more extensive use of existing restrictive norms to combat misinformation about the virus (which is indeed a significant problem in the modern world). Unfortunately, in most cases, these legislative norms and the actions of governments were not aimed at combating misinformation but at limiting critical opinions. For example, in autocratic countries, the criminalization of "fake news" (which may not have been fake at all but simply critical) was used as a tool to control information and silence the media. A few countries' specific goals were not to suppress critical voices, but the hastily and vaguely worded laws they adopted proved counterproductive.

In this review, on the example of more than 40 countries, we will try to reflect in the context of Covid-19 the regulations adopted based on the fight against misinformation and false news (their real goals and practical implementation), which created additional problems for citizens already affected by the pandemic. The countries we review below were selected based on reports from international organizations working to protect freedom of speech. The main principle of their selection became the regulations and practical measures adopted on the pretext of combating misinformation and false news. We will start the review with China, whose government actions, as we have mentioned, contributed to the spread of the epidemic. We will also review Georgia's situation, neighborhood, the post-Soviet space, and other world countries. Based on this information, we will try to identify the main reasons and common approaches used by the authorities of different countries during the pandemic to restrict freedom of speech.

Note: The full document is available only in Georgian.


photo credit: PaintingValley


Davit Kutidze