REVIEW #13: Access to Information in Times of Crisis

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is a global health crisis that inevitably spills into other areas of people’s lives. In responding to the exigencies of the coronavirus pandemic, governments around the world have made vast and unprecedented decisions to combat the spread of the virus and protect lives. These state emergency measures, which are, on the one hand, vital to public health and lives, on the other hand, impact not only the economic performance of countries but also, in many ways, present a threat to human rights and freedoms.

In these extraordinary circumstances, governments need to exercise prudence in the introduction of emergency measures, weighing carefully what limitations to impose on human rights and freedoms.

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This article will not explore the question of lawfulness, legitimacy, or necessity of state emergency containment measures, such as lockdown or curfew, international border closure, domestic travel restrictions, school and kindergarten closures, limits on public gatherings and other human contacts during a public crisis that severely threatens the lives of the population.

It does, however, explore the state of freedom of expression through a lens of access to information during the ongoing global public health emergency.

In such times, more than ever, people need and expect to be timely, accurately, and comprehensively informed about the pandemic and the state of the healthcare system, as well as not be prevented from fully scrutinizing the government’s emergency measures in response to the pandemic. Thus, freedom of expression direly needs an additional layer of protection.

Therefore, the COVID-19 pandemic should not be used by state authorities as a pretext for limiting freedom of expression, including suspension of the right to information and attacks on media freedom. In this endeavor, it is of particular importance for governments to accept and uphold the crucial role of independent media having access to first-hand information.

This is paramount to keeping the public timely and factually informed about an evolving pandemic and its risk to people’s safety, as well as to prevent general panic and fostering people’s understanding for and cooperation with a necessary restriction on their rights and freedoms.

COVID-19: A Public Health Emergency

Since the end of 2019, people around the world are facing exceptional circumstances. Like in any other public crisis, such as wars, terrorist attacks, natural and human-made disasters, the coronavirus pandemic is severely threatening people’s lives.

In a time of a pandemic, it is the government’s responsibility not just to secure their right to life, but also to protect the rest of their rights and freedoms. Governments, while combating a health crisis and protecting lives, need to keep in mind that the threat is the COVID-19 virus, not the citizens.


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Tanja Porcnik