The NGO Coalition for Human Rights is deeply troubled by the recent arrests of members of the public at a time of uncertainty and with the threat of COVID-19 pandemic.
The arrests were made under the Public Order Act S15(a)-
Any person who-
(a) maliciously fabricates or knowingly spreads abroad or publishes, whether by writing or by word of mouth or otherwise, any false news or false report tending to create or foster public alarm, public anxiety or disaffection or to result in the detriment of the public; or
“The NGOCHR acknowledges that spreading fake information is unacceptable in such worrisome circumstances. However, as measures have been put in place in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, processes must be protective of people’s human rights and safety,” said NGOCHR Chair Nalini Singh.
“There must also be clarification on the Public Order Act and what constitutes malicious fabrication whether it is on the basis of viral circulation or content. Many that may be well-meaning or seeking clarification on information related to COVID-19 could potentially foster “disaffection” and could be charged under this section for causing panic.”
The public is already in a state of anxiety and alarm, it is difficult to control how individuals will react in these extraordinary times. There is concern that the ambiguity around these arrests could hinder the flow of information, particularly for people living with disabilities or women and girls in rural communities.
“It is very worrying that at this time where there is a very contagious virus at our shores, people are being taken in for investigation and if the state of our remand centres are crowded, the health risks are high. Not just for those in custody but the rest of the population as well,” said Ms. Singh.
It is critical that at this time, human rights must be protected and maintained. Marginalised groups such as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, and Intersex (LGBTQI) are particularly vulnerable in these situations as detention systems are not sensitive to Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression, and Sex Characteristic (SOGIESC).
The NGOCHR reiterates the need to ensure a human rights based approach in its response to COVID-19.
“In this time when tensions are high and the situation may be frustrating, it is our leaders that need to be reassuring the public. It is disappointing to see that there is victim-blaming happening against the patients of COVID-19, including within our parliament which is the highest level of leadership in our nation,” said Ms Singh.
“We must redirect our focus to preventative measures in addressing the pandemic and not cause more strain to our limited resources. This is a time where we need to come together as a nation and work towards preventing the spread of the pandemic and not causing more distress to the people.”