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A Guide to Open Government and the Coronavirus: Misinformation and Protecting Freedom of Expression

Guía de gobierno abierto y coronavirus: Desinformación y protección de la libertad de expresión

Guide pour un gouvernement ouvert et le Coronavirus: Mésinformation et protection de la liberté d’expression

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The timely and proactive dissemination of information across social media and other channels is critical to saving lives and protecting livelihoods during COVID-19. However, the rapid spread of misinformation and disinformation presents a key challenge. While these trends are not particular to the COVID-19 crisis, they could significantly harm the global pandemic response. Both the UN Secretary General and WHO Director-General have drawn attention to the “infodemic” of misinformation, which adversely affects the crisis response. Some governments have censored independent media and online content to tackle the spread of fake news and misinformation. Trackers, like the one developed by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), show growing trends of state censorship of independent media and deliberate disinformation campaigns fueled by both state and non state actors.

Recommendations

This section highlights policy responses with an open government lens for immediate response, ongoing recovery, and long-term reform efforts. We draw on recommendations from partner organizations including Access Now, Article 19, Web Foundation, among others. For more information, refer to related sections on whistleblower protection, civic space, and right to information in this guide.

Definitions:

Disinformation: Information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country. Misinformation: Information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm.

Open Response

Open response measures place transparency, accountability, and participation at the center of immediate government efforts to curb contagion and provide emergency assistance.

Publish information proactively

  • Governments should proactively share relevant information in a timely manner, updated on a regular basis.
  • Publish information across mainstream media, social media channels, and through mediums and languages accessible to segments of the population across the digital divide.
  • Governments should designate official spokespersons and data sources in relevant government departments to minimize the likelihood of conflicting messages.

Due process, scope and limitations

  • Ensure that emergency powers that temporarily restrict these constitutional rights are subject to limitations within the framework of relevant international legal frameworks, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • Ensure that emergency powers’ scope and limitations are clearly defined, including procedural and legal requirements as well as the right to recourse under the domestic constitution.
  • Strengthen legal frameworks on the role of national human rights institutions, and create mechanisms for them to partner with civil society to carry out their role.

Countering misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech

  • Designate specific units within governments that can immediately identify and counter misinformation trends, while avoiding punitive measures that could lead to censorship.
  • State agencies should refrain from conducting propaganda campaigns. Media and civil society have an important role to play in monitoring and flagging state-led disinformation campaigns.
  • Ensure that any new executive orders or legislation that target hate speech meet the limits of proportionality, necessity, and legality as outlined in international human rights law.
  • Ensure that accountability and redress for curbing hate speech on social media platforms lies with the government rather than the online platforms themselves.

Expanding digital access

  • Open, secure, and accessible internet is particularly key for essential workers and the public to access critical information in a timely fashion and also gain access to economic markets and resources. Governments should refrain from blocking access to the internet or placing restrictions on data speeds.

Open Recovery and Reform

Open recovery and reform measures place transparency, accountability, and participation at the center of ongoing efforts extending to the medium and longer-term rebuild in the wake of COVID-19. Similarly, open reform initiatives ensure that the public is at the heart of government in the post-pandemic world.

The 2019 OGP Global Report identified a few recommendations on the protection of freedom of expression, including some of those highlighted below.

Due process, scope and limitations

  • Ensure that limits to freedom of expression for the purpose of pursuing legitimate aims, such as tackling corruption and cybersecurity, are legal and proportionate.
  • Institute stronger recourse measures to end impunity related to attacks on journalists and media personnel.

Raising awareness and training

  • Establish training programs on respecting and protecting expression. All state authorities responsible for protecting journalists and freedom of expression should participate.
  • Engage organizations representing women and minorities in crafting solutions to disinformation, harassment, and violence on online platforms.

Regulating the media environment

  • Increase international pressure on state-led harassment, detention, or killing; establish rules and protections for press freedom in digital and print media; establish guidance on safety of journalists (that consider gender-related threats); and create conditions for greater media pluralism.
  • Guarantee effective protection of women, and LGBTQIA+ media and civil society actors who may face workplace dangers.

Countering misinformation, disinformation, and hate speech

  • Assess, reform, and revise rules on content and defamation as needed in consultation with media, tech platforms and civil society.

Sanctions and accountability

  • Remove the statute of limitations to investigate crimes against the freedom of expression.
  • Set out strong protections for investigations and prosecutions for violence against journalists and other civil society actors, to ensure access to justice. These should include gender-sensitive/responsive protocols.

Examples

The following examples are recent initiatives in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and are drawn from our crowdsourced list as well as partner materials.

  • The United Kingdom has designated a specialized unit to combat misinformation about the coronavirus.
  • Mexico created a portal to verify information circulating on social networks and digital media.
  • Canada created a video game app to combat disinformation by teaching citizens to identify false information.

The following examples are commitments previously made by OGP members that demonstrate elements of the recommendations made above.

  • Croatia (2018-2020): Reforming framework for media regulation to improve transparency, protect journalists and prevent publication of fake news.
  • Nigeria (2018-2020): Protecting freedoms of expression and assembly by training police and other security agencies to respect citizens’ rights.
  • Italy (2016-2018): Implemented its Declaration on Digital Rights by raising citizens’ awareness of their digital rights.

Resources

Partners who can
provide further support and information

Thank you to our partners at Access Now, CIMA, CIVICUS, IFEX, ICNL and Web Foundation for sharing recommendations and reviewing this module.

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