Picture Taken from The Conversation
The Centre for Independent Journalism and Kryss Network refers to the recent charging of an individual under the Penal Code, Section 505(b), for making statements on Facebook in relation to the novel coronavirus.
The section refers to the making of statements, rumours or reports with intent to cause or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state or against public tranquillity.
We acknowledge the government’s responsibility and efforts to maintain public order when dealing with serious public health issues such as the novel coronavirus.
It is the government’s duty to educate, inform and warn the public, as necessary, and we note that the Health Ministry has been expedient in providing the public with important information, including through the use of social media channels, and that the health minister has promised transparency in this situation.
We note that there have been some individuals who have posted misleading or even provocative comments regarding the public health situation. In dealing with such situations, we urge the government to take steps that are necessary and also proportionate.
Prosecutions for criminal offences that may lead to penal sanctions should only be reserved for statements that have a real likelihood of endangering the public and causing public harm and disorder. Making a misleading or false statement, in and of itself, does not necessarily constitute an offence.
The context and reach of the statement, the speaker’s intention and position in society, and the potential for the statement to cause real harm must be taken into account. In deciding whether or not any statement should be investigated or prosecuted, authorities must consider whether the statement would actually incite the public to commit offences and endanger public health or public order.
We are particularly concerned about the public prosecutor’s request in this case for bail to be denied, which is disproportionate and punitive in nature, and was rightly refused by the court.
We stress that legal remedies are just part of the many tools that can be employed to counter disinformation and misleading statements. A holistic and proportionate response would include having efficient and broad channels of information from the government and media, accessible and reliable means for the public to verify the information and the use of reporting facilities within social media applications for misinformation to be removed.
A disproportionate response in the criminalisation of expression can be counter-productive as it could shut down public discourse that is crucial in dealing with public health issues.
Ultimately, misinformation can best be countered through robust protections of the freedom of information. Governments cannot be the sole arbiters of truth by having the power to arbitrarily decide what information can and cannot be in the public domain.
In the longer term, the best way to counter misinformation is through building up trust in government information channels and in the media. That can only be done by fulfilling promises to repeal repressive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act, the Official Secrets Act and the Sedition Act; and the enactment of a right to information law.
In this regard, we welcome the statement of the attorney-general that section 233 of the CMA will not be applied to those posting misleading statements and we hope that the section will be reformed soon to ensure that it cannot be utilised arbitrarily to stifle all manner of speech.