Governments in more than 80 countries have used the coronavirus pandemic to justify restrictions on media freedom and peaceful protest, a report released Thursday said.The FILE – A journalist takes copies of the white paper about China’s fight against the coronavirus disease before a State Council Information Office briefing in Beijing, China June 7, 2020.Countries have the right under U.N. treaties to implement measures to protect public health and deal with public emergencies. But Human Rights Watch said it found multiple instances of governments ignoring international obligations on such matters as access to information, and it called on the U.N. Human Rights Council to investigate.“The sheer number of governments that have passed new laws with vague and ambiguous terms to outlaw the dissemination of certain types of information is shocking,” said Gerry Simpson, associate director for the Human Rights Watch crisis and conflict division. “Penalizing speech about public health matters based on vague concepts such as ‘fake news’ is clearly not compatible with the requirement to adopt the narrowest possible restrictions necessary to protect public health.”In China, authorities moved swiftly to detain and censor doctors, journalists and activists who first reported on the virus. Last month, Beijing announced it had investigated upward of 17,000 people for allegedly spreading false news online about the pandemic, Human Rights Watch reported.The media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said this week that seven journalists and online commentators were still detained or missing in China after reporting on the outbreak in Wuhan.FILE – A pro-democracy activist holds placards with the picture of Chinese citizen journalist Zhang Zhan outside the Chinese central government’s liaison office, in Hong Kong, Dec. 28, 2020.Only two of those — lawyer-turned-journalist Zhang Zhan and commentator Ren Zhiqiang — have stood trial. They were convicted and sentenced to prison in separate cases.”Informing the public on this unprecedented health crisis is not a crime. These journalists should never have been arrested,” Cédric Alviani, the East Asia bureau chief for RSF, said in a FILE – Journalist Barkha Dutt rests after reporting from Guru Teg Bahadur hospital in New Delhi, after authorities eased restrictions imposed as a preventive measure against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, June 12, 2020.The report noted that some of the restrictions imposed under the guise of limiting the spread of the virus, including on free assembly, instead were used to stifle dissent in areas not related to the pandemic.The rights group was “shocked at the way governments have shamelessly used social distancing and other public health regulations to arbitrarily ban and break up peaceful protests,” Simpson said. “Weaponizing the pandemic for political gain is a clear breach of the right of freedom of assembly.”Human Rights Watch wants the U.N. Human Rights Council and World Health Organization to examine how countries used emergency measures to stifle free speech to “help put an end to the abuse,” Simpson said.Columbus Mavhunga contributed to this report. 

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