As the Covid-19 epidemic continues to spread across the globe, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on governments that are restricting Internet access and blocking websites to restore the public's access to information on this vital subject and to allow journalists to use the Internet freely to work and publish their reporting.
The governments of India, Ethiopia, Iran and Egypt are among those that are restricting online access to reliable, independent reporting on the coronavirus crisis or are using Internet speed or access curbs to obstruct the work of journalists.
"Preventing access to the Internet, especially to news websites, obstructs journalistic work and deprives the public of reliable, independent coronavirus coverage, which is essential at this time," RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. "These measures are shocking violations of the freedom to inform and the right to information when we are in the midst of a global public health crisis. It is essential that this access is restored. The governments concerned bear an enormous responsibility."
India published a note on 26 March confirming that Internet access restrictions will continue in the northern territory of Jammu and Kashmir. At the start of March, six months after completely disconnecting Internet access in this territory, India restored a very slow and limited connection, still depriving Kashmiri citizens of independently reported news and preventing local journalists from working freely.
The situation is similar in the west of Ethiopia's Oromia region, where several million inhabitants have been denied Internet and telephone access for the past month. This measure was initially adopted with the aim of restoring order after clashes between the army and a group of rebels. But, since the detection of Ethiopia's first Covid-19 case on 13 March, this disconnection could have disastrous public health consequences because the population is deprived of access to information about the epidemic and journalists cannot cover this essential subject.
Restrictions on Internet speed have been reported in Iran, where the government news media continue to cover up the reality of Covid-19's impact there. On 3 March, the government temporarily blocked access to Wikipedia's Farsi version. Iran has increasingly used Internet cuts to limited the circulation of independent reporting.
In Egypt, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation has suspended websites and webpages for six months for "spreading false news" and has brought charges against their owners. It has also published a hotline that can be called to report Internet content "liable to cause public anxiety." It is currently blocking more than 500 websites including those of RSF, the BBC and the US government-funded TV channel Al-Hurra.
In a joint statement published on 19 March, the United Nations, the OSCE and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urged governments to lift all restrictions on Internet traffic. The UN has recognized Internet access as a fundamental right since July 2016.