In COVID-19 Fight, Free Speech Becomes Collateral Damage

"After I confirmed it with my sources, I reported the situation", Can, who at the time worked for the local Izmir newspaper Iz Gazete, told BIRN.

Pressed to name his sources, Can refused. Hours of questioning resulted in a charge of spreading fake news and causing panic. The case was dropped several months later, but Can's chilling experience was far from a one-off. 

According to the media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders, Can was among 10 Turkish editors and reporters interrogated just in March of last year concerning their coverage of the pandemic that had just begun. 

"Governments are using the pandemic as an advantage over freedom speech," Can said.

Turkey is well-known for its jailing of journalists, but it was not the only country in the region to employ draconian tools to control the pandemic narrative. Nor have journalists been the only targets.

BIRN has confirmed dozens of cases  in which regular citizens have faced charges of causing panic on social media or in person. There are indications the true number of cases runs into the hundreds.

Whether dealing with accurate but perhaps unflattering news reports or with what the World Health Organisation called last year an "infodemic" of false information, governments have not hesitated to turn to social media giants to get hold of the information that could help them track down those deemed to be breaking the rules.

"Every government has a duty to promote reliable information and correct harmful and untrue allegations in order to protect the personal integrity and trust of citizens," said Tea Gorjanc Prelevic, head of the Montenegrin NGO Human Rights Action.

"But any measure taken to combat misinformation should not violate the fundamental right...

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