An international human rights law NGO Thursday criticized the governments of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam for using the COVID-19 pandemic to enact new laws that would allow them to more tightly control the media.
The Switzerland-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) submitted a report to The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) saying that the new laws “contain provisions incompatible with human rights law and standards as their vague language makes them prone to abuses.”
The report also detailed harsh sanctions and criminal penalties for violations of the vaguely written laws, which the ICJ said was not compatible with the principles of necessity and proportionality.
“Laws in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam that do not comply with human rights law and standards have served to shrink the civic space in which the media operate,” said Sam Zarifi, the ICJ’s Secretary General in a press release.
“This stands to undermine the media’s crucial work in performing their investigative functions and their capacity to impart information to the public,” he said.
In the OHCHR submission, dated April 16, the ICJ cited two recently passed Cambodian laws which allow the government to stop or limit the free flow of information over the air, online or by any other means for reasons ranging from preventing public panic, stopping the spread of misinformation during an emergency situation, or “affect[ing] safety, national revenue, social order, dignity, culture, traditions and customs”
The ICJ also criticized two recently passed Vietnamese laws which allow the government to control content on social media, and websites and in written materials like newspapers in order to prevent “fake or false information” which “distorts or damages the prestige, honor or dignity” of others, to stop panic among the population, or is not suitable to the country’s interest.
It also said Thailand passed a law prohibiting “presentation or dissemination” of information on the pandemic that is either false or distorted to the point that it can cause misunderstanding of the emergency situation or could instigate fear.
The ICJ also showed how authorities in the three countries were able ot continue to abuse existing laws to target journalists and social media users during the pandemic.
“Although the ICJ recognizes the necessity to combat the spread of false information online to protect public health during the uncertainty of a pandemic, this objective can and must be carried out using the least intrusive means, rather than unnecessary and disproportionate measures like arrests, detentions, criminal prosecutions and onerous fines,” the ICJ said.
The submission urges the OHCHR to continue working with the three Southeast Asian governments to better protect journalists both in law and in practice, and to safeguard rights to freedom of expression and information.
It also called on the three states to stop harassing members of the media, drop charges against journalists and media workers detained for violations of domestic laws that are inconsistent with international human rights laws.
On Tuesday, the Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued its 2021 Press Freedoms Index, which ranked Vietnam at 175 out of 180 countries surveyed worldwide, a ranking unchanged from last years.
Cambodia was also unchanged at 144, and RSF said Phnom Penh the “used the Covid-19 crisis to impose more censorship, blocking news sites, arresting journalists and proclaiming a state of emergency that gave it unprecedented power to censor and spy on the traditional and online media.”
In Thailand, which improved three spots to 137, “the government used the coronavirus crisis to issue a decree making the dissemination of information that is ‘false or capable of causing fear in the public’ punishable by up to five years in prison and allowing the authorities to ‘correct’ any published information,” RSF said.