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Press freedom must not be undermined by measures to counter disinformation about COVID-19

Statement by Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights
Strasbourg 3 April 2020
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Press freedom must not be undermined by measures to counter disinformation about COVID-19

“The global health problems caused by COVID-19 require effective measures to protect people’s health and lives. This includes combating disinformation that may cause panic and social unrest. Regrettably some governments are using this imperative as a pretext to introduce disproportionate restrictions to press freedom; this is a counterproductive approach that must stop. Particularly in times of crisis, we need to protect our precious liberties and rights,” said Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović.

“In the past weeks, parliaments, governments and local authorities have adopted legislation, decrees or decisions that clearly risk hampering the work of journalists and media actors and restricting the public’s right to receive information.

Journalists covering the pandemic in Hungary and the Russian Federation are facing a variety of sanctions, including the risk, under new laws, of prison terms of up to five years for spreading “false information”, while in Azerbaijan, recent amendments impose an obligation on owners of internet news outlets to prevent the dissemination of “harmful information” online. In Romania, a decree allows the authorities to remove content and block websites where this content provides “false information” regarding the evolution of COVID-19 and prevention measures, without the possibility to appeal against the decision. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, decrees and legislative proposals aimed at punishing the circulation of information that can cause panic run the risk of limiting the work of journalists and freedom of expression on social media platforms. Finally, in Armenia, a number of newspapers and websites had to delete some information, following the adoption of strict rules prohibiting the publication of information of a medical and epidemiological nature about the virus outbreak which is not fully consistent with official sources.

Access to information is also a collateral victim of the measures governments are taking to face the pandemic. However, as indicated in the recent Joint statement by international experts, journalism serves a crucial function during a public health emergency. Despite the fact that timely information is essential for the public to understand the danger and adopt measures at a personal level to protect themselves, the filtering of information and delays in responses to freedom of information requests have been observed in several member states. In the Czech Republic, Serbia and Italy, there have been reports of cases of journalists who were prevented from attending press conferences, obtaining information from health authorities or documenting the operations of law enforcement officials.

It is also of the utmost importance that journalists are able to work under safe conditions, without fear of being harassed or attacked, as stressed in the Recommendation (2016)4 of the Committee of Ministers on the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors. However, in Turkey, several journalists were detained in reprisal for their reporting on COVID-19. In Slovenia, a journalist who filed an information request about the measures adopted by the government to face the pandemic has been the target of a smear campaign by media close to the political party leading the government coalition.

There is no doubt that governments are facing unprecedented challenges during this pandemic. This cannot however be an excuse to clamp down on the press and thus restrict people’s access to information. Journalists and media actors carry out indispensable work that serves the public good. Their work must be protected, not undermined.

I therefore urge all Council of Europe member states to preserve press and media freedom and ensure that measures to combat disinformation are necessary, proportionate and subject to regular oversight, including by Parliament and national human rights institutions. Measures to combat disinformation must never prevent journalists and media actors from carrying out their work or lead to content being unduly blocked on the Internet. Those countries which have introduced restrictions that do not meet these standards must repeal them as a matter of urgency.”


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20 March 2018

On 20 March 2018, the European Court of Human Rights issued its Grand chamber judgment on Mehmet Altan’s case. The Court found there had been a violation of Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security) and a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention for Human Rights. With regards to article 5 §1, according to the Court findings, “Mr Altan’s continued pre-trial detention, after the Constitutional Court’s clear and unambiguous judgment of 11 January 2018 (…), could not be regarded as ‘lawful’ ”. The Court held that “for another court to call into question the powers conferred on a constitutional court to give final and binding judgments on individual applications ran counter to the fundamental principles of the rule of law and legal certainty, which (…) were the cornerstones of the guarantees against arbitrariness”. Under Article 10, the Court held in particular that “there was no reason to reach a different conclusion from that of the Constitutional Court, which had found that Mr Altan’s initial and continued pre-trial detention, following his expression of his opinions, constituted a severe measure that could not be regarded as a necessary and proportionate interference in a democratic society”. The Court pointed out in particular that “criticism of governments and publication of information regarded by a country’s leaders as endangering national interests should not attract criminal charges for particularly serious offences such as belonging to or assisting a terrorist organisation, attempting to overthrow the government or the constitutional order or disseminating terrorist propaganda”.

20 March 2018

On 20 March 2018, the European Court of Human Rights issued its Grand chamber judgment on Şahin Alpay’s case. The Court found there had been a violation of Article 5 § 1 (right to liberty and security) and a violation of Article 10 (freedom of expression) of the European Convention for Human Rights. With regards to article 5 §1, according to the Court findings, “Mr Alpay’s continued pre-trial detention, after the Constitutional Court’s clear and unambiguous judgment of 11 January 2018 (…), could not be regarded as ‘lawful’ ”. The Court held that “for another court to call into question the powers conferred on a constitutional court to give final and binding judgments on individual applications ran counter to the fundamental principles of the rule of law and legal certainty, which (…) were the cornerstones of the guarantees against arbitrariness”. Under Article 46 (binding force and execution of judgments) of the Convention, the Court held that it was incumbent on the respondent State to ensure the termination of Mr Alpay’s pre-tria detention at the earliest possible date. Under Article 10, the Court held in particular that “there was no reason to reach a different conclusion from that of the Constitutional Court, which had found that Mr Alpay’s initial and continued pre-trial detention, following his expression of his opinions, constituted a severe measure that could not be regarded as a necessary and proportionate interference in a democratic society”. The Court pointed out in particular that “criticism of governments and publication of information regarded by a country’s leaders as endangering national interests should not attract criminal charges for particularly serious offences such as belonging to or assisting a terrorist organisation, attempting to overthrow the government or the constitutional order or disseminating terrorist propaganda”.

27 August 2015