Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) Chairman Fred Mitchell yesterday raised concern over the potential abuse of emergency powers the government is seeking in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the House of Assembly on Wednesday, Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis tabled a proclamation by the governor general declaring a public state of emergency and the Emergency Powers (COVID-19) Regulations, 2020.
The regulations grant wide-ranging powers to the prime minister that will allow for, among other things, the detention of people infected with COVID-19 or those who traveled to infected places; the possible prohibition of assembly of two or more people in any specific area; the requisition of any building, ship or aircraft; a curfew; social distancing and isolation orders; restricted access to specified areas; and the prohibition of publishing or reposting false stories.
In particular, Mitchell took issue with the clause addressing “fake news”, which could allow a ban on the publication and sharing of information that is untrue or that “may incite public fear, panic or ethnic hatred”.
“We are already hearing some feedback on the question of, are the powers under the regulations with regard to social media comments and whether there is going to be abuse of power by the government,” Mitchell said.
“You have to be very, very concerned when a government exercises these kinds of emergency powers. And the public has to have a sense that the substratum is actually there for the need for emergency powers.”
Mitchell said the public has been cooperative so far and doesn’t need to be forced to follow instructions.
“The fact is that as far as we could see, the public has complied with everything the government has asked to be done -– the social isolation, all of the rules,” he said.
“The churches have complied, so on and so forth. So why does the government feel the need to have emergency powers? And I’m sure they have an explanation for it.
“But there is a history throughout the Caribbean of the abuse of power in the exercise of these kinds of proclamations. And the public needs to be assured that there will be no such abuse of power.”
At a press conference late yesterday, the prime minister announced that as of today a curfew will be imposed across the country and all businesses, with limited exceptions, will suspend operations for a period of 11 days in an effort to fight COVID-19.
The curfew will be imposed each night from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. with such exception as may be approved by the commissioner of police.
There are three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in The Bahamas.
The country’s first patient was identified as a 61-year-old woman who had no recent travel history.
As of yesterday, there were nearly 245,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in at least 160 countries, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
Minnis announced earlier this week that foreigners who have been in the UK or Europe in the past 20 days will not be allowed entry into The Bahamas. Bahamians who have recently visited the region will face quarantine upon entering The Bahamas.
At last report, there were over 10,000 confirmed cases in the United States and 149 deaths.