Civic Freedoms and The Covid-19 Pandemic: A Snapshot of Restrictions and Attacks

Civicus, the international network of Civil Society Organizations, has just put out a brief on the impact of the pandemic on protest and activism around the world. Some highlights (my summary in square brackets)

[Civic activism hasn’t entirely stopped, but it has moved from mass mobilization to a greater emphasis on symbolism and imagination]

‘2019 was a historic year for protest movements, as documented in our annual People Power Under Attack report. Thousands of people took to the streets in ChileHong Kong(China)IndiaandLebanon, among many other countries, and many of these mobilisations continued into 2020. However, the COVID-19 pandemic brought many mass protests to a halt as states introduced emergency measures, which included restrictions on public gatherings to curb the spread of the pandemic. Despite restrictions, during the months monitored in this brief, many people mobilised, using creative and alternative forms of protest, including online and socially distanced protests.

In Palestine, in April 2020, feminists organised balcony protests against the surge of gender-based violence during the pandemic. Videos show Palestinians banging on pots and pans and hanging signs on their balconies to show solidarity with victims of violence.

Climate activists in the Netherlands collected shoes from all over the country and filled the square of the House of Representatives in the Hague with a thousand shoes as a symbolic form of protest against the climate crisis. In Singapore, young climate activists from the Fridays for Future global school strike movement held solo protests in April 2020 due to the country’s restrictive laws on peaceful assembly.

In June 2020, human rights groups organised peaceful interventions to denounce the scale of the COVID-19 crisis in Brazil. In Brasilia, protesters put up 1,000 crosses paying tribute to COVID-19 victims on the lawn in front of key government buildings, calling out President Jair Bolsonaro for his denials of the pandemic’s gravity.

However, demonstrations have been met with multiple violations, including the detention of protesters, the use of excessive force by authorities and protest disruptions.

Freedom of expression under threat

From censoring citizens due to the alleged spread of ‘fake news’ on the pandemic, to targeting media outlets and detaining journalists, the freedom of expression has continuously come under attack. This is particularly concerning given the importance of having access to accurate information and the crucial role of journalists and the media during the pandemic.

In Zimbabwe, Hopewell Chin’ono, a prominent Zimbabwean journalist known for exposing government corruption, was arrested in July 2020 after he reported on corruption in the procurement of COVID-19 supplies, leading to the dismissal of Health Minister Obadiah Moyo. In a move that sparked an international outcry, Chin’ono was charged with ‘incitement to participate in public violence’. International media watchdog groups have called for all charges to be dropped against Chin’ono, who was released on bail in September 2020.

The assault on the freedom of expression and media freedom in the Philippines has persisted. Top broadcaster ABS-CBN was forced off air in May 2020 after the Philippines Congress refused to renew its licence, while prominent journalist Maria Ressa was convicted for ‘cyber-libel’. The authorities also pursued journalists critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic.

In Turkmenistan, where the government continues to deny the existence of COVID-19 in the country, the authorities have detained and intimidated people, including doctors, for speaking out about COVID-19-related issues in public places.

The pandemic has been used by the government in Turkey’s to further crack down on journalists and citizens. During the pandemic, journalists have been jailed on charges of ‘causing people to panic and publishing reports on coronavirus outside the knowledge of authorities’. In addition, social media platforms have become increasingly subject to surveillance during the pandemic, leading to several detentions of people on the grounds of making ‘unfounded and provocative’ posts that ‘cause worry among the public, incite them to fear, panic and target persons and institutions’. Approximately 6,000 social media accounts have been inspected by the Interior Ministry.

Credit: Maria Jose Ventura Alfaro

[Governments using the pandemic for an even harsher legal crackdown]

As the pandemic has gone on, states have continued to enact overly broad and vague emergency legislation and pass restrictive laws without adequate consultation with civil society.

In Botswana, the government passed the Emergency Powers Act, giving the president powers to rule by decree for six months. The Act also introduced heavy punishments for offences, including imprisonment of up to five years or a US$10,000 fine for anyone publishing information with ‘the intention to deceive’ the public about COVID-19 or measures taken by the government. It also stipulates that journalists can only reference the country’s director of health services or the WHO when reporting on COVID-19.

In Cambodia, a State of Emergency Law was passed in April 2020 that mandates unfettered power to the executive. The law bestows executive power to ban or restrict meetings and to close public or private spaces. It also allows the government to put in place the means to observe all telecommunications systems, and to ban or restrict news or social media deemed to ‘generate public alarm or fear or generate unrest, or that could bring about damage to national security, or that could bring into being confusion regarding the state of emergency’. The State of Emergency Law contains no sunset clause and can only be ended by Royal Decree, which could allow the law to be used well beyond the end of the current pandemic.

Egypt has been under a state of emergency since 2017, which was extended in May 2020 due to the pandemic. However, the extension ratified new amendments that give the president more powers. The Emergency Law (Law 162 of 1958) exploits COVID-19 in order to undermine judicial independence and expand the military prosecution’s jurisdiction to investigate citizens and gives the president the power to authorise the military prosecution to investigate crimes that violate the Emergency Law (Article 4). It also contains new articles that grant the president powers to ban public and private meetings, demonstrations, processions, celebrations and other forms of gathering.

[But there are some bright spots]

While the restrictions imposed by many states paint a worrying picture globally, there have also been some positive developments during the pandemic. In Kenya activists and CSOs successfully challenged the use of excessive police force during the pandemic, resulting in at least a dozen officers being indicted. In March 2020, following a public uproar, human rights activists took to the streets to protest against the use of excessive force by the police, which increased significantly during the COVID-19 curfew. Investigations by the Internal Affairs Unit revealed that more than a dozen people had been killed by police while enforcing the curfew.

In Bolivia, the interim government issued a decree sanctioning those who ‘disinform or cause uncertainty’ to the population during the pandemic. The legislation was widely criticised by CSOs and media freedom advocates who stated that it could be used to silence those who are critical of the government’s COVID-19 policies. The law was also expanded to include an additional decree on criminal sanctions. However, in a positive move, following criticisms by domestic and international CSOs, interim president Jenine Áñez revoked the two decrees.

In another win for media freedom, in Hondurasa decree instituting a state of emergency during the pandemic restricted the right to the freedom of expression without censorship, as guaranteed by the Honduran Constitution. Media associations urged the government to revoke this restriction, with 21 CSOs condemning the decree as a disproportionate measure. Following this pressure, the government re-established constitutional guarantees relating to the freedom of expression.

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