Numerous governments, some democratic, have capitalized on the COVID-19 infodemic to justify repression of online expression
To curb the global spread of COVID-19, at least 80 countries around the world have enacted emergency declarations in hopes of flattening the curve and slowing the progression of the pandemic. In addition to public health measures and economic stimulus packages, at least 24 countries have issued measures that affect free expression to address the infodemic occurring parallel to the pandemic.
Governments seeking to respond to the surge of unreliable information pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic have implemented new laws that criminalize the act of spreading misinformation and disinformation. While some of these laws have been used to correct and remove false narratives, others have used these laws to censor dissenting voices. This is a particularly concerning trend for countries with strong commitments to democratic values, particularly as many of these emergency measures have few limitations. How nations choose to enforce these measures may have profound consequences for societies and could — in cases where misinformation remains ill-defined and where there is no clear expiration for the expanded powers — pose a grave threat to democratic institutions.
The authoritarian degrees of COVID-19 decrees
Turkey’s response to the infodemic is among the more alarming cases, despite not having declared a state of emergency or passed any specific legislation adopting stricter measures limiting freedom of expression. The Turkish government has an established history of launching investigations into posts made by users under accusations of spreading false information. In the wake of the COVID-19 crisis and local outbreaks, the government has intensified these efforts by arresting over 410 people for posting “provocative” messages on social media.
There have also been reports of people being arrested for criticizing the Turkish government for its response. On March 29, truck driver Malik Yilmaz was arrested for posting on his TikTok account that orders to stay at home would render him unable to earn enough money to eat. More broadly, journalists — some of whom already face prosecution from the Turkish government — have been arrested or questioned in conjunction with their coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Journalists from the independent agency Bianet were detained by police under charges of spreading panic for reporting factual information on infected cases in Bartın Province. Others have been intimidated into publishing only official statements and refraining from investigative work.