The right to Internet as the right to health? Obligations to remove barriers to the access of information during a pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic is an issue of public health. But with states putting unreasonable barriers to the access of information and effective communication, it is equally an issue of ensuring the protection of fundamental freedoms and human rights during such crisis.
These are extraordinary times. As the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic enters its fourth month, there are almost 1.32 million confirmed cases, and over 70,000 deaths worldwide. With regular updates on the situation keeping us on our toes, there is recognition of the crucial role played by public information at such times. However, as States and international organisations come together to co-operate and share vital information transcending borders, some countries are being accused of keeping critical information from the public, while others are accused of putting up barriers to it.
Even though access to timely and accurate information is clearly essential during such a time, countries such as Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, and India, have laws in place which ban Internet access and communication, putting the people at a higher risk. In addition to there being a hindrance to communication for humanitarian groups addressing the COVID-19 threat in these areas, such restrictions disrupt healthcare services, making it difficult for professionals to access guidelines for intensive care and other important data relating to managing the Coronavirus disease. The inability to connect with the outside world could also adversely impact the mental and emotional health of the people.
In such circumstances, it is essential to evaluate the inter-related human rights obligations with regards to the right to health, such as the right to information, and the right to access the Internet.
Right to health
The right to health is recognised by almost all global and regional human rights instruments. This fundamental right includes the physical, mental and social well-being of an individual. It also comprises of other connected rights, such as the right to access healthcare in a non-discriminatory and accessible way, as well as rights obligating States to take precautionary and preventive measures ensuring the right. As follows, access to healthcare is a fundamental human right, and States are obligated to ensure international minimum standards of preventive public health care, under the right to health. The International Health Regulations (2005), in particular, necessitate a reporting duty on States – an obligation of the reporting, assessment, determination and notification of public health emergencies of international concern. This obligation also corresponds to the obligation to disseminate necessary information required to overcome the public health crisis.
Right to information
Quite clearly, linked to the right to health is the right to access information. As has been articulated by various international and regional human rights instruments and courts, the right to seek and receive information comprises of the right of individuals to access general information and, more particularly, information of public interest as well as information concerning themselves that may affect their individual rights.
In the wake of Covid-19, people have the right to remain informed of the threat to their health so as to take the measures to mitigate risks, and prevent future consequences. Such a right to be informed also entails the right to information in the local languages and through media and in formats that can be easily understood and accessed, so that they can fully participate and take informed decisions in the response efforts.
In a 2013 Report on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, the Special Rapporteur affirmed that whenever a State imposed restrictions on the exercise of the right to freedom of expression, such restrictions must strictly conform to tests of necessity and proportionality, and must not put the right itself in jeopardy. Disallowing access to public information, which can pose a greater risk to an individual’s health and life certainly seems unnecessary and disproportionate in the present scenario. Accordingly, restrictions on access to information in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic are unjustified under international human rights law.
Right to Internet
This crucial right to information is made up of the right to access the information. As such, the Internet works as a powerful medium for the same. More importantly, as people stay indoors to avoid the spread of the virus, there is an increased dependency on such a medium for psychological support and well-being. As a result, the virtual world has become a manifestation of the real one, and so the restriction on the freedom of the Internet is not only a direct assault on the right to liberty, and the freedom of speech and expression, but also on the mental well-being of an individual.
The United Nations General Assembly, in a resolution in 2016, asserted that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with Articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Charter of the Human Rights and the Principles of Internet, prepared by the Internet Governance Forum of the United Nations, also outlined the right to access to, and make use of, the Internet as a fundamental right. This includes access to health-related and social services on the Internet. Therefore, it becomes imperative for States to address security concerns in accordance with their international human rights obligations.
International human rights law recognises that in the context of public health, threats and emergencies threatening the life of the nation, restrictions on some rights can be justified on certain grounds. In this context, The Siracusa Principles, adopted by the United Nations Economic and Social Council in 1984, point out that emergency restrictions during a health crisis should be as nonintrusive as possible to achieve the objective. However, States cannot derogate from their core obligations under the right to health, which include non-discriminatory access to health facilities, goods and services, and information, especially for vulnerable or marginalised people. In essence, under the present circumstances, I argue that a denial of the right to access the Internet is also a denial of the right to health.
Covid-19 is indeed a significant threat to public health. During such emergencies, when access to information is of critical importance, broad restrictions on the access to the Internet cannot be justified on public order or national security grounds. Naturally, placing barriers on the use of Internet is a violation of international human rights law, and only worsens the threat. Thus, it is necessary for all States to refrain from blocking Internet access, and ensure the protection of human rights.