Repressive Governments Exploit Covid To Clamp Down On Freedom Of Expression

Repressive Governments Exploit Covid To Clamp Down On Freedom Of Expression
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Governments around the world are using the Covid pandemic as an excuse to ban protests, imprison journalists and silence whistleblowers, according to a new report.

Campaign group Article 19 says in its Global Expression Report 2021 that its global scores for freedom of expression and the right to information have reached their lowest point since 2010.

Two thirds of all countries imposed restrictions on the media in relation to the pandemic, it says.

“Populist leaders and those who seek to entrench their own power, hate accountability,” says Quinn McKew, executive director of Article 19.

“Freedom of expression is often the first port of call for autocrats looking to erode democracy, and it must become the means by which we reverse this downward trend.”

With many governments restricting mass gatherings through fears of spreading infection, some went far further, with Belarus and Thailand singled out in the report for their repressive responses to protest movements — both on the streets and in the courts.

And during 2020, 62 journalists were killed and a record 274 imprisoned, in many cases for criticising governments’ responses to COVID-19. China, Turkey, and Egypt were the biggest jailers.

Journalists, bloggers, human rights campaigners and political activists have been questioned and arrested for expressing views on Covid 19 or sharing information, in countries including Palestine, Poland, Madagascar, Eswatini, India, Tunisia, Niger and Cameroon.

Globally, says Article 19, two thirds of the population lives in a country where freedom of expression is highly limited – more than at any time in the last decade. The same is true of 85 per cent of the population in Asia and the Pacific, while not one country in Africa receives a good score.

The report questions whether governments will abolish special measures as the threat from Covid fades away.

“As the pandemic recedes, we will not only need to rigorously roll back all the restrictions that have been placed on us and our rights, and roundly reject the surveillance imposed on us during 2020, but also heal the cracks which existed long before,” says McKew.

“That means addressing those failures of economic and political systems that have allowed single individuals to take control of resources and institutions, and which have left many by the wayside in terms of economic opportunity and political inclusion.”

The research echoes a recent report from the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, which notes a rise in authoritarianism since the start of the pandemic.

“In addition to its grave health impacts, the Covid 19 pandemic has accelerated a number of negative trends, including the erosion of human rights and democracy in different parts of the world,” commented foreign secretary Dominic Raab.

“It has provided an opportunity for unscrupulous and opportunistic governments to increase repression and flout international law.”

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