At least 83 governments worldwide have used the coronavirus pandemic to justify curbs on free speech and peaceful assembly and targeted political opponents, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Thursday.
Vague laws were enacted that criminalised free speech, the report by the New York-based rights body said, adding that journalists, activists, healthcare workers and opposition groups were among those targeted by authorities.
“Governments should counter COVID-19 by encouraging people to mask up, not shut up,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Beating, detaining, prosecuting, and censoring peaceful critics violates many fundamental rights, including free speech, while doing nothing to stop the pandemic.”
On February 11, @HRW launches a new report on how governments worldwide are silencing free speech under cover of #COVID19. To join us, @article19org and @pressfreedom, please DM me for details. #StopGermsNotSpeech pic.twitter.com/Lf3ZarJpAO
— Gerry Simpson (@GerrySimpsonHRW) February 9, 2021
The report outlaid five key areas where governments worldwide have committed abuses since January 2020, when COVID-19 – the disease caused by the virus – started to spread across the world.
Journalists and bloggers have been physically attacked by security forces over their reporting on COVID-19 related issues in at least 18 countries, the report said.
In India, more than 50 journalists were reportedly arrested, physically assaulted or had police complaints filed against them for reporting on the government’s mishandling of the pandemic. At least nine were beaten, including two in police custody, according to Rights and Risks Analysis Group (PDF).
Arbitrary arrest, detention, prosecution
Authorities in several countries used the health emergency to justify the prosecution or the fining of people for “expressing opposition to authorities’ responses to the pandemic or other government policies unrelated to COVID-19”, reads the report.
Last February, a court in Pakistan ordered the arrest of a local leader for a Facebook post regarding a rumour over a Chinese national testing positive for the coronavirus.
In the city of Quetta in Balochistan province, police reportedly arrested more than two dozen students as they staged a protest seeking access to the internet for online classes. Police cited a ban on gathering for their detention.
At least 52 countries, the HRW report says, passed “vague laws” criminalising categories of media coverage that they deemed undesirable.
The Russian parliament approved a law in April which has provisions for fines of up to two million rubles ($25,000) and prison terms of up to five years for spreading what it deemed as “fake news” regarding the coronavirus. Media outlets face a fine of up to $127,000 if they disseminate disinformation, according to The Associated Press news agency.
In August, Iranian authorities closed a newspaper after it published remarks by an expert who said the official figures on coronavirus cases and deaths in the country accounted for only 5 percent of the real toll, the AP reported.
Restricting Access to Public Health Information
At least nine countries “have suspended or restricted the right to request and receive public health information or limited press accreditation for COVID-19 related press briefings to pro-state media outlets”.
Brazil was among the nine countries named in the report. Its president, Jair Bolsonaro, was accused by HRW in April of putting Brazilians in “grave danger” by urging them not to comply with social distancing and other measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
On March 20, Bolsonaro issued an executive order stripping the state of the authority to restrict people’s movements to contain COVID-19. The order was revoked four days later by the country’s Supreme Court.
At least 10 countries have “arbitrarily banned or broken up protests” against the handling of the pandemic, or they “have used COVID-19-related regulations to end protests”, the report said.
In Hong Kong, security forces arrested dozens of people and banned a protest on China’s National day in October citing COVID-19-related regulations.
Protesters wanted to march against Beijing’s imposition of a sweeping national security law on June 30 and demand the return of 12 Hong Kong people who were arrested at sea by Chinese authorities in August as they tried to reach self-ruled Taiwan.