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Amnesty said that many governments had used the pandemic as an opportunity to further restrict freedom of expression. It also cited the role of social media in the spread of misinformation.
Amnesty International warned that restrictions on free speech were likely to stay in force even after the pandemic
The rights group's report, titled 'Silenced and misinformed: Freedom of expression in danger during Covid-19,' cited a slew of measures announced by governments around the world that placed "unprecedented" curbs on freedom of expression since 2020.
"Communication channels have been targeted, social media has been censored, and media outlets have been closed down," said Rajat Khosla, Amnesty International's senior director for research advocacy and policy.
Lives may also have been lost due to lack of proper information, he added.
"Governments that have long kept a tight control over what is shared in the public domain with overly restrictive legislation, have used the pandemic as another excuse to apply laws to censor and silence criticism, debate, and the sharing of information," Amnesty's report said.
"Other governments have used the widespread alarm and confusion generated by the pandemic to rush through new legislation and other emergency measures that are not only disproportionate but also ineffective to deal with issues such as misinformation."
The report said that China, where the virus first emerged at the end of 2019, had opened criminal investigations into 5,511 people by February 2020.
These people had been charged with "fabricating and deliberately disseminating false and harmful information" about the nature and extent of the outbreak, according to Chinese authorities.
Russia expanded its anti-"fake news" legislation and introduced amendments that imposed criminal penalties for what it called "public dissemination of knowingly false information" in the context of emergencies, Amnesty said.
It also imposed administrative penalties for media outlets that publish such information, the report added.
The London-based group warned that these laws and penalties were likely to stay in force even after the pandemic.
The report also took aim at the role of social media companies in "facilitating" the spread of misinformation.
It said the reason for this was that social media "platforms are designed to amplify attention-grabbing content to engage users and have not done enough due diligence to prevent the spread of false and misleading information."
"The onslaught of misinformation… is posing a serious threat to the rights to freedom of expression and to health," the 38-page report said.
"States and social media companies must ensure the public has unfettered access to accurate, evidence-based, and timely information," Khosla said.
"This is a crucial step to minimize vaccine hesitancy driven by misinformation."
adi/sri (AFP, dpa)