right to information

COVID-19: The Right to Public Information


COVID-19: The Right to Public Information is Also a Language Issue

Blogpost written by Adjunct Prof. Tove H. Malloy, PhD, Department of European and International Law at Europa-Universität Flensburg 

Governments across the globe are issuing public statements on a daily, if not hourly, basis about how to combat the spread of the Corona virus. People are expected to understand what to do and what not to do. Press conferences and video messages have become a standard means of communication in addition to websites, apps and regular press releases. Most governments have created websites specific for COVID-19 information, as have the United Nations  and the World Health Organization. Communications advisers are likely working overtime to ensure that the messages get out timely and reach entire populations. A country’s commitment to pro-actively provide high-value information is at the heart of open government. 

The Media

Under such circumstances, the fourth estate – the media – becomes an important player. The media – both public and private – is to some extent taking its public duty to provide information seriously. Some online media has taken down the paywall for news about COVID-19, and very many cable and digital media are channelling the general public’s concerns and questions to policy and decision makers.

People who might not normally turn to public information are tuning in because the COVID-19 pandemic concerns all groups in society, no matter what colour, ethnicity, cultural, national or other affiliation.   

Language Rights

While all these initiatives are well-meaning, they are mostly in one language – the language of the state and government. In some cases, statements are translated into the main relevant languages and available on government websites. The good news is that sign language interpreters are now assisting at almost all press conferences, although in some cases this service is only available online after the broadcast. And NGOs have started helping authorities by providing COVID-19 information in multiple languages. Nevertheless, press conferences and videos remain monolingual.

It seems as if governments have forgotten that societies are multicultural and multilingual.  

This is particularly surprising in Europe where many governments have adopted language rights for minorities. The European Charter on Regional or Minority Languagesiv has been ratified by 25 countries, and the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minoritiesv by 39 countries. In spite of these legally binding treaties, experts argued that  

… countries have not systematically shared the information, instructions, guidelines or recommendations in languages other than the official language of the country. This also concerns the traditional regional or minority languages spoken in the respective countries. The communication of relevant recommendations in these languages is of utmost importance for the well-being of the speakers of regional or minority languages. (Council of Europe)

The OSCE’s High Commissioner on National Minorities has also pleaded for governments to be sensitive to language needs: 

States should provide basic services in the languages used by various communities as far as possible, especially in healthcare and in communications about the health crisis and official responses. People with limited knowledge of the official language(s) can become particularly vulnerable if they cannot understand what is expected from them.

Although immigrant communities and ethnic minorities are expected to master the official language, situations of emergencies and upheaval often become difficult to handle in a foreign language. This can be a problem both in the communication about the measures taken against the pandemic and in the health sector, if they are admitted to the hospital. Refugees and asylum seekers are in even worse situations as duly noted by international NGOs. Not only do they likely not understand the language of their current domicile or refugee camp; many may not be able to read even in their own language and thus may be totally unaware of the risks when they should be taking part in decisions that affect their lives. 

The Older Generation

Most importantly, the lack of language skills can create health hazards for all. Often the older generations of immigrant and minority communities have not been able to adapt to the new language as well as the younger generation. The elderly therefore become dependent on the young to assist as translators. This poses a major problem because the young are supposed to keep a physical distance from the elderly. In hospitals, the younger cannot assist. As experience from China has shown, ‘emergency linguistics’ or language planning in connection with the treatment of patients should also be part of governments’ strategies. By not providing adequate translation, governments may put older immigrant and minority generations in danger of becoming infected by their younger relatives or not understanding the carers. Refugees and asylum seekers may be in similar situations with their wardens.  

At the same time, the older generation immigrants and minorities are also less digitalized than the young. They may not be able to access the information that they are supposed to understand and follow, even if it were in their own language. Another problem is that immigrants and minorities who live in rural and remote areas may not even have permanent access to the internet. 

Not only are they marginalised, if they do not speak the official language; they are also marginalised, if they are not digitally connected.   

Violating the Policies

Getting the wrong information is another issue. Because of the lack of access to translation, many immigrant and minority communities prefer to get their information and news from abroad, or rather from ‘home.’ This is a major problem in times of emergencies and crises. COVID-19 policies are not uniform across transnational regions; they vary from state to state. Immigrants and minorities may assume that what is requested by the public in one country is also requested by the next. When this is not the case, they risk violating the policies adopted in their country of residence, thus perhaps putting themselves and others in danger.   

The Right to Information

The right to information is one of the core human rights in the fight against the spread of COVID-19. Governments have sanctioned it globally in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and incorporated it in the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals No. 16. In times of emergencies governments must take all tools in use to secure that people’s right to information is not violated. Not all governments have been successful in this. It is clear that lack of multilingual communication can jeopardize the good outcome of COVID-19 policies. It is the right of all affected groups in society to have access to timely and relevant information in a language they understand. 

The human right to information is also a right to translation.   

 Best regards,

Adjunct Prof. Tove H. Malloy, PhD, Department of European and International Law at Europa-Universität Flensburg

This is a series of updates regarding the Coronavirus from Human Rights Expertsread more here