Human Rights online, Violations and Government Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic

In Zimbabwe, there are an estimated 4.81 million internet users with 980 thousand social media users as of January 2020. The circulation of fake news regarding the pandemic is a key concern, and this has been met with a strong response from African governments. In Zimbabwe, the president has warned that a penalty of 20 years in jail will be leveled against anyone circulating fake news on social media. The penalty is excessive and criminal defamation laws are discouraged in the protection of freedom of expression. 

The Covid 19 pandemic saw a flood of information being published online. Print media moved online and the period saw a rise in citizen journalism as many people were home with plenty of time. News on politics and corruption were broken online, which gave the news more reach than it had before the pandemic, and this to some extent rattled those in power and state authorities.

Many African countries, Zimbabwe included while grappling with containing the virus in its early days were involved in activities that violated online and digital rights of citizens. The internet has for example been used to share information  through contact tracing, surveillance, collecting information and contact details of people via mobile telephone networks.

Nigeria for example attempted data surveillance with mobile applications, and announced flight details of people whom they had difficult tracking. In Kenya, nude photographs of COVID-19 patients were posted and shared on social media. 

In South Africa, cell phone operators agreed to release customers data to the government of South Africa and also set new regulations criminalising disinformation on the COVID-19 outbreak.

In Zimbabwe some of the fake news circulating on social media includes statements such as, “drinking alcohol will kill the coronavirus’ , it’s ok to share facemasks’, ‘Africans cannot get Covid 19’ and also that exercise will protect people from COVID-19.

Other false information which circulated on social media include statements like, COVID-19 thrives  in winter, and people saying taking a hot bath will prevent them from contracting Covid 19 all which are mythical and therefore untrue. Another myth which was circulating on social media is that ‘mosquito bites spread corona virus’ and that during seasons when mosquitoes are not there the disease doesn’t spread that much. Pamela from Mbare, one of the old suburbs in Zimbabwe said, “blacks rarely die due to coronavirus’. It’s just a disease that infects them, just like a common cold and then it disappears. 

Organisations such as Zimfactcheck are playing a watchdog role by fact-checking news and information on the public sphere so that the general public can receive verified news, information and related facts in the wake of the rise in misinformation.

Also within the pandemic period many countries witnessed a collection of sensitive data for example in Zimbabwe, the government was able to access people’s mobile telephone numbers and share updates and related information on the corona virus pandemic.   

In Zimbabwe, people’s right to access information online was further restricted by the digital divide. In rural areas for example  very few people have smartphones and know how to use the internet to access information. 

In urban areas, the constant power cuts limits the time that people can access internet services as electricity power cuts affect internet connectivity. 

The activities of most governments during the pandemic violated citizen’s right to privacy, and their right to freedom of expression and access to information as well as the right to dignity of persons. 

Respecting and fulfilling human rights is primarily the responsibility of state authorities and those who feel violated should seek remedy through their local legislation, courts and international responsibility.

Governments should ensure continuity and expansion of community based services so that people will have options close to them in terms of remedies.

As has been highlighted they are many violations with data privacy in many countries and these have been enabled by laws and policies governing online media. In Ghana for example emergency laws were used to collect data from telecoms for contact tracing purposes. 

 

By Patience Shawariran | PINs 2021 Digital Rights and Inclusion Media Fellow

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