Advocates criticize governments of Bolivia and Puerto Rico for using pandemic to restrict freedom of expression

Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) warned this week that governments are using the new coronavirus pandemic to publish measures that threaten freedom of expression. The two organizations cited the case of Bolivia, and CPJ also highlighted the situation in Puerto Rico.

The entities issued releases denouncing Supreme Decree 4200, of March 25, from Bolivia's interim president Jeanine Áñez. The document, which sets out a series of actions against COVID-19, includes an “overly broad provision that authorities could use to prosecute those who criticize government policies,” HRW wrote.

“The Bolivian government appears to be taking advantage of the pandemic to give itself the power to punish anyone who publishes information the government deems ‘incorrect,’ in violation of free speech protections,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at HRW, according to an organization release. “Vigorous debate is the best medicine against incorrect information, not prison terms.”

CPJ also stated in a note that criminalizing "disinformation" makes it appear that the Bolivian interim government is more concerned with its public image than with the fight against COVID-19.

“These overly broad provisions that criminalize speech open up the dangerous possibility of abuse against journalists reporting vital information and facts,” said Natalie Southwick, CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator, according to an organization press release.

Article 13 of the document says that “individuals who incite non-compliance with this decree or misinform or cause uncertainty to the population will be subject to criminal charges for crimes against public health,” according to HRW. The organization highlighted that the measure is ambiguous and vague, for not explaining what can be considered "misinformation" or acts that "cause uncertainty to the population.”

The decree provides that "crimes against public health" can be punished with up to 10 years in prison, according to the organizations. HRW argues that the government should immediately repeal this article, which "seriously threatens freedom of expression in the country.”

Similarly, CPJ also recommends that the government amend the decree to ensure that journalists are not arrested for reporting during the pandemic.

HRW cited other government statements that concern free speech advocates. On March 18, according to Página Siete, the Bolivian government minister, Arturo Murillo, ordered the Armed Forces and the National Police to do a "cyber patrol" to identify and punish, criminally, people who are spreading disinformation on the Internet.

Then, on March 27, according to Opinión, Minister of Public Works, Iván Arias, said he would jail people for 10 years who spread false information about COVID-19 on the internet, in addition to threatening to take them to hospitals to "care for coronavirus patients.”

HRW points out, however, that it does not know of cases in which the government has effectively used the decree to punish people for exercising freedom of expression. According to Vivanco, the measure seems more directed against the MAS (Movement for Socialism, for its acronym in Spanish), the party of former President Evo Morales.

“While the government has so far attributed ‘misinformation’ only to MAS members, without proof, the decree and the threatening statements by government officials can also have a chilling effect on others,” Vivanco said. “Journalists, health professionals, whistleblowers, and any social media user could understandably be fearful of being prosecuted if they criticize or reveal problems with the government response to COVID-19.”

In its statement, CPJ said that during the Añez government, there were other threats to freedom of expression. “During its five months in power, the Añez interim government has forced several opposition radio stations off the air, harassed critical journalists, and labeled some as “seditious,” according to news reports. In January, Añez’s former communications minister, Roxana Lizárraga, declared that freedom of expression in Bolivia ‘has its limits.’”

Threats in Puerto Rico

This week, CPJ also denounced a threat to freedom of expression in Puerto Rico. According to the entity, the governor of Puerto Rico made an amendment to the public security law to make it illegal for media outlets or social media profiles to transmit or allow the transmission of false information in relation to government actions on COVID-19 and other disasters.

CPJ asked Puerto Rican authorities to ensure that journalists can cover the pandemic without fear of retaliation. According to the organization, the law provides for imprisonment for up to six months and a fine of up to $ 5,000. If the false information causes more than $10,000 in public sector spending or leads to property damage, the propagation will be considered a serious fourth-degree crime.

“A state of emergency should not be an excuse for Puerto Rican authorities to suspend press freedom,” said CPJ Program Director Carlos Martínez de la Serna, according to an organization release.. “It is essential that media organizations and journalists are allowed to report freely on matters of public importance like COVID-19 without fear of retaliation from the government in the form of fines or criminal charges for coverage that it may not like.”