Disinformation thrives in countries with a lack of public information, and investigative journalism is under constraint. This is according to Irene Khan, the UN Special Rapporteur on the protection of freedom of expression for the United Nations Human Rights Council.
She presented a report to the Council this week on the occasion of the 47th meeting of the Assembly. In it, she presented her observations on how member states are combatting the phenomenon and concluded with 22 recommendations.
Overall, she found that one of the key problems is the way States respond to disinformation. Laws and policies are often being made with “sub-optimal knowledge” of online harm, without any adequate data, little research, and no public consultations.
She added that some States have resorted to disproportionate measures such as “vague and overly broad laws that criminalize, block, censor, and chill online speech and shrink civil space.” These measures, she said, are not compatible with international human rights law and contributed to fostering fear and entrenching public mistrust of information and institutions.
The consequence of disinformation is a decaying trust in democratic institutions. Khand said it disempowers individuals and robs them of the autonomy to search for information and form opinions. Member States have not properly addressed the situation and in many cases, they are using it against their own people.
She called for States to “enhance the role of free, independent, and diverse media” and to be sure to engage the public, media, and civil society in decision making.
But much of the misinformation out there is coming from States themselves, the report found. This comes either via state institutions or proxies that target domestic audiences. This is done for political or strategic aims, and when combined with the power of the state, it has devastating results for human rights, she said.
In recent years, States have used disinformation campaigns during elections and other political processes. It’s also used to stop debate or criticism over governments’ actions. In terms of COVID, there were many instances whereby governments falsified death or infection rate data to portray a false narrative.
Khan stressed that states must not only protect journalists and allow them to work without fear but that media and digital literacy must be taught in schools.
In Albania, the “anti-defamation” package which is still pending on the agenda of Parliament, would bring all online media under the de facto control of the State. It would give a board the power to fine, close, block, and enforce popups on any media that it deems has breached certain provisions relating to fake news and disinformation. The law has been widely condemned by local and international organizations yet the government has not formally withdrawn it.