Sri Lanka refutes UN assertion that it has “clamped down” on freedom of expression over COVID 19
ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is raising concern over a press release issued by the United Nations which alleged that the government has clamped down on the freedom of expression during the COVID 19 pandemic.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet on June 3 issued a press release which named a number of countries, including Malaysia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Sri Lanka as those which have arrested and prosecuted people for Social Media posts critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic.
In her statement Bachelet said that in “ these times of great uncertainty, medical professionals, journalists, human rights defenders and the general public must be allowed to express opinions on vitally important topics of public interest, such as the provision of health care and the handling of the health and socio-economic crisis, and the distribution of relief items.”
The press release noted that the Acting Inspector General of Police has “threatened to arrest anyone who allegedly criticizes or highlights “minor shortcomings” of officials involved in the coronavirus response or who shares “fake” or “malicious” messages. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka on 25 April wrote a letter to the police informing them that any arrest for the mere criticism of public officials or policies would be unconstitutional.”
Police have arrested and charged at least seven people for Social Media posts that criticized the authorities’ handling of the response to the pandemic. A woman, described as a dance teacher, was arrested for posting that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had contracted COVID 19.
In a media statement issued today, June 9, the Ministry of Foreign Relations said that it has written to Bachelet saying that “it has become essential for all countries and Governments to take measures to counter misinformation and disinformation in the interest of protecting public health, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The letter sent by Sri Lanka’s Acting Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, Dayani Mendis, says the measures taken by Sri Lanka are also in line with the consensus resolution on COVID-19 response adopted on 18 May 2020 at the 73 World Health Assembly (WHA), which calls on Member States to “provide the population with reliable and comprehensive information on COVID-19 and take measures to counter misinformation and disinformation.”
Clarifying the content of the internal directive issued by Sri Lanka’s Acting IGP the letter points out that the directive “does not carry instructions to arrest persons for mere criticism, or for sharing fake or malicious messages, except in the case of violations of the laws of relevance on; obstructing a public servant in discharge of his/her duty, wrongful restraint of a public servant, use of criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his/her duty, disobeying a quarantine order and acts of disruption of public law & order and quarantine procedures using computer technology.”
While reiterating Sri Lanka’s commitment to the protection and promotion of human rights in terms of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the Government of Sri Lanka urged the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, to be sensitive to the unprecedented challenges faced by countries and to engage in a spirit of cooperation. (Colombo, June 9, 2020)
Reported by Arjuna Ranawana