Jurisdictions Surveyed: Armenia | Azerbaijan | Bangladesh | Belarus | El Salvador | India | Kazakhstan | Kenya | Kyrgyzstan | Mauritius | Moldova | Nepal | Nicaragua | Pakistan | Russian Federation | South Africa | Sri Lanka | Tajikistan | Ukraine | Uzbekistan
This report, prepared by the research staff of the Law Library of Congress, surveys legal acts regulating mass media and their ability to distribute information freely during the Covid-19 pandemic. The report focuses on recently introduced amendments to national legislation aimed at establishing different control measures over the media outlets, internet resources, and journalists in 20 selected countries around the world where adoption of such laws has been identified, namely: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, El Salvador, India, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Mauritius, Moldova, Nepal, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.
While the laws of other Central American and Eurasian countries were assessed, no legislation that would address the exercise of freedom of expression in the Covid-19 context has been identified in Costa Rica, Georgia, Guatemala, and Turkmenistan. Costa Rica and Georgia are democracies with protected freedom of speech, while Guatemala and Turkmenistan are known for having an environment hostile to journalists and the media. This has not changed during the pandemic; however, no additional legislation imposing restrictions on the media and journalists during the pandemic has been passed in these countries. In Honduras, the President issued a decree restricting several constitutional rights, including freedom of expression, but this decree had a very short validity because six days later, after general complaints and international pressure, the government issued another decree reestablishing the restricted constitutional guarantee to free expression without censorship.
The list of countries selected for this survey does not include all the jurisdictions in the world where laws prosecuting the publication of so-called “fake news” related to the Covid-19 pandemic were passed in 2020.
The constitutions of all the countries surveyed protect freedom of expression and of publication; however, as soon as these countries introduced emergency regimes to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, media rights were restricted by their governments. Even though the Salvadoran emergency declaration emphasizes that it does not apply to media freedoms, the persecution of journalists and restrictions on their movements were reported. Similarly, all quarantine restrictions, requirements to work from home, and bans on travel were extended to journalists in Kyrgyzstan.
Claiming the need to protect the public from panic and keep people informed with correct data, some countries adopted new laws or added provisions to their criminal statutes penalizing the distribution of false news. The actions of these surveyed countries demonstrate that their newly added norms were focused on punishing “the dissemination of false information about the spread of infections subject to quarantine and other infections dangerous to humans” (Uzbekistan), or addressed the dissemination of false information about the pandemic specifically (South Africa, Tajikistan), or were broader and prosecuted the spread of any “false information that may pose a threat to the life and safety of citizens” (Russia).
Other countries preferred to rely on older laws for prosecuting the spread of misinformation, although they started to enforce these laws more vigorously. In Nepal, for example, police warned people that they would face up to one year of imprisonment for spreading fake news concerning COVID-19 on social media, and in Pakistan, the Minster for the Interior promised “strict and immediate” action against those who spread COVID-19 misinformation. In Ukraine, the pandemic coincided with ongoing public debates concerning legislative initiatives related to media and fake news. No provision in Indian or Belarusian law specifically deals with “fake news.” However, as described in the report on India, a “number of offenses under various laws criminalize certain forms of speech that may constitute ’fake news‘ and have been applied to cases involving the spread of false news regarding COVID-19.” Similarly, in Belarus, dispersing false information is prosecuted under a Criminal Code article, which punishes the “discrediting” of the Republic of Belarus or its government authorities. In view of the absence of special provisions on false news in Pakistan, the Government formed a committee led by the Minister for the Interior to create a legislative framework for preventing the spread of “disinformation and fake news” about the COVID-19 pandemic on social media. In the meantime, existing legislation criminalizing “statements conducive to public mischief” is used.
Punishments for these crimes and violations vary from nominal fines, community service, and short-term detention to lengthy periods of imprisonment. The most severe punishment for publishing fake news online was found in Bangladesh, where the monetary fine can reach an amount equal to almost US$120,000, and imprisonment can be 14 years long.
In addition to amending norms criminalizing the distribution of fake news, the governments of the countries surveyed amended laws regulating mass media and internet resources. In Azerbaijan, owners and users of “information-telecommunication networks” were banned from placing, or allowing the placement of, prohibited content. Publication, broadcast, or electronic transmission of information that is false or not trustworthy is in many countries a reason for terminating the registration of a media outlet or blocking an internet resource following the warning issued by a responsible government agency (Belarus, India, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia). Stricter procedures for media monitoring were introduced in several countries (Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Belarus, and Uzbekistan).
It is typical for the government in the majority of the countries reviewed to control quarantine and health-related information distributed by mass and social media. In Nicaragua, the government has denied independent and international media participation in Ministry of Health briefings regarding the pandemic. The information related to the pandemic is not open. In Nepal and Russia, government regulators issued special instructions for journalists and bloggers on how to cover COVID-19-related developments obligating them to “ensure the maximum accuracy and complete correctness of the information” and avoid blaming or accusing anyone. Armenia established that only government-provided information on Covid-19 can be delivered by the media, and some Indian states required the confirmation of information by government health authorities. In Moldova, the television and radio regulatory body prohibited journalists from expressing their own opinions on topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic, both in the domestic and external context.
In almost all the countries included in this survey, the public, journalists, civil society, and the international community criticized recently introduced restrictive measures; however, in only a few of them did activists succeed in forcing the government to repeal or change these acts. These were: Honduras, where restrictions established under an emergency declaration were softened; Armenia, where the government allowed the media to get information from multiple sources by the end of the first month of the emergency situation; and Kyrgyzstan, where the President vetoed the contradictory Law on Manipulating Information. In El Salvador, the protection of journalists became a matter of parliamentary control, and the Legislative Assembly created a special commission to investigate digital attacks against journalists. However, the constitutionality of anti-media policies was not challenged in the courts. It appears that South Africa was the only country among all jurisdictions researched where regulations implementing the Disaster Management Act were the subject of judicial review. Even though the Court found various parts of the regulations unconstitutional, the ruling did not apply to provisions that criminalize misinformation relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2018, provisions penalizing the distribution of false news were challenged in the High Court of Kenya, but no contradiction between them and constitutionally protected freedom of speech has been found.
It is difficult to draw direct connections between the pandemic crisis and the worsening media climate. However, in some countries, pandemic-related restrictions on the media and the fight against fake news coincided with adoption of other legal acts, which make the work of journalists more difficult. In Armenia, new rules allow the government to withhold environmental information and limit the broadcast of foreign TV channels; in Moldova, the length of the period when government authorities are required to respond to public information requests became three times longer than before the pandemic; and in Kazakhstan, a newly passed law restricts the work of court reporters and limits the tools journalists may use while working in courts.
Enforcement practices were reviewed in all the countries surveyed, and select examples can be found in all the individual country reports.
Prepared by Peter Roudik
Director of Legal Research
Last Updated: 12/30/2020