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Access to information necessary to prevent spread of COVID-19

(YANGON, March 26, 2020)—The Government of Myanmar should immediately lift all internet restrictions in Rakhine and Chin states to protect against the COVID-19 pandemic, said Fortify Rights today. Myanmar is denying more than 1,000,000 residents of Rakhine and Chin states access to the internet and vital information in the context of the global pandemic.
 
Myanmar confirmed on March 23 its first cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus spreading throughout the world.

“Now more than ever, the people of Myanmar need unrestricted access to the internet,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “Depriving any segment of the population access to information at this time is not only a violation of human rights, it’s also gravely irresponsible.”

The Government of Myanmar first restricted internet access in eight townships in Rakhine State and one township in Chin State in June 2019. After temporarily lifting restrictions in five townships in Rakhine State in September, the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications reinstated the restrictions on February 3, 2020, the same day that the Arakan Army—a non-state ethnic army in Rakhine State—declared online that it would release evidence of mass graves of Muslims killed and buried by Myanmar armed forces in Rakhine State.

A Rohingya man walks a path on the outskirts of his village in Sittwe Township, Rakhine State. The government restricts Rohingya access to education, livelihoods, and freedom of movement, stemming from the denial of citizenship rights. ©Fortify Rights, 2019
A Rohingya man walks a path on the outskirts of his village in Sittwe Township, Rakhine State. The government restricts Rohingya access to education, livelihoods, and freedom of movement, stemming from the denial of citizenship rights. ©Fortify Rights, 2019

In a joint statement published on February 13, Fortify Rights and 28 organizations called on the Government of Myanmar to lift these restrictions.
 
On March 23, Myanmar’s Ministry of Health and Sports confirmed that two Myanmar nationals, who recently returned to the country, tested positive for COVID-19 in Chin State and Yangon Region. Prior to these cases, the Myanmar government claimed the country was free of the novel coronavirus, implausibly citing the “lifestyle and diet of Myanmar citizens” and the use of cash over credit cards as “beneficial against the coronavirus.” On March 24, the ministry confirmed another case of COVID-19 in Myanmar.

“By denying access to the internet, the Myanmar government is preventing residents of Chin and Rakhine states from being informed on how to take precautionary measures, follow best practices, and prevent the spread of the disease,” said Matthew Smith. “During a public health emergency, such information can be life-saving, and it’s imperative the Myanmar government facilitates access to such information.” 

The internet restrictions appear to be related to the authorities’ ongoing attack on Rohingya Muslims as well as the ongoing conflict between the Arakan Army and the Myanmar military, which has displaced tens of thousands of civilians in conflict-affected townships in Rakhine and Chin states since an escalation in the fighting in 2019. The nine townships affected by the internet restriction are Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Maungdaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Ponnagyun, and Rathedaung in Rakhine State and Paletwa Township in Chin State, covering an estimated population of 1,072,159, according to census data from the Myanmar government.

In July 2019, Fortify Rights documented how the internet shutdown in Rakhine State disproportionately affected the protection of civilians through the disruption of aid delivery.

On March 19, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, experts from the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said in a statement:

[I]nternet access is critical at a time of crisis. It is essential that governments refrain from blocking internet access; in those situations where internet has been blocked, governments should, as a matter of priority, ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible internet service. Especially at a time of emergency, when access to information is of critical importance, broad restrictions on access to the internet cannot be justified on public order or national security grounds.

On March 24, chairpersons of the ten U.N. human rights treaty bodies called for a “human rights approach in fighting COVID-19.” The statement urged governments to “take extra care of those particularly vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19, including older people, people with disabilities, minorities, indigenous peoples, refugees, asylum seekers and migrants.” The chairpersons added that any controls taken to respond to the crisis “must be undertaken pursuant to a valid legal framework.”
 
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the right to freedom of expression, which includes the right to “receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Recognizing the internet as a “key means” for individuals to exercise this right, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression held that States have a positive obligation to adopt “effective and concrete policies and strategies . . . to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all.”
 
International law permits States to limit access to the internet for reasons of national security or public order, but any such restriction must be provided by law, necessary to achieve a legitimate aim, and not be overbroad or disproportionate. Furthermore, in a 2016 resolution on the promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, the U.N. Human Rights Council condemned “unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online” and called “on all States to refrain from and cease such measures.”
 
In December 2019, a novel coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China. There are now more than 472,109 confirmed COVID-19 cases in at least 175 countries and territories.
 
Restricting access to the internet of Rakhine and Chin states during a public health crisis is not only irresponsible and dangerous, it violates international human rights law and principles, said Fortify Rights.

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