More than 83 governments worldwide have used COVID-19 to kill critics, close media outlets and abuse free speech

Human Rights Watch said on Thursday that at least 83 governments worldwide have used the Covid-19 pandemic to justify violating the exercise of free speech and peaceful assembly.

The rights group said authorities have attacked, detained, prosecuted, and in some cases killed critics, broken up peaceful protests, closed media outlets, and enacted vague laws criminalizing speech that they claim threatens public health.

The victims include journalists, activists, healthcare workers, political opposition groups, and others who have criticized government responses to the coronavirus.

“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.”

Governments and other state authorities should immediately end excessive restrictions on free speech in the name of preventing the spread of Covid-19 and hold to account those responsible for serious human rights violations and abuses, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Human Rights Council in its session beginning February 22, 2021, should commission a new report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights focusing on states’ compliance with their human rights obligations in responding to Covid-19, including the impact of restrictions on free speech and peaceful assembly.

Human Rights Watch reviewed national government responses around the world to the Covid-19 pandemic and found that unlawful interference with free speech has been one of the most common forms of overreach. In some countries, violations were limited. In others, such as China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Vietnam, government violations affected hundreds or thousands of people.

In some countries, including BangladeshChina, and Egypt, people remain in detention at the time of writing simply for criticizing government responses to Covid-19 months earlier.

They include Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old citizen journalist, who in December was sentenced to four years in prison by a Shanghai court for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by traveling in February 2020 to Wuhan and reporting from there on the coronavirus outbreak. Officials have been force-feeding Zhang since she started a hunger strike soon after her detention in May and her health is deteriorating, her lawyer said.

“I spend every day in fear,” Zhang said before her conviction. “I am afraid when an Army officer threatens me. Or when the police tell me they’d beat me to death. Or when a friend warns me that the National Security Department is onto me. … I’m just documenting the truth. Why can’t I show the truth?”

Human Rights Watch identified the following trends:

  • Military or police forces in at least 18 countries physically assaulted journalists, bloggers, and protesters, including some who criticized government responses to Covid-19 such as insufficient healthcare funding, lockdowns, and a lack of masks and gloves for medical workers. Abuses include firing live ammunition at peaceful protesters, beating them at checkpoints, and assaulting them in detention, with apparent impunity. In most cases, these forces said they were enforcing Covid-19-related regulations. In Uganda, security forces also killed dozens of protesters.
  • Authorities in at least 10 countries have arbitrarily banned or broken up protests against government responses to Covid-19, in some cases citing social distancing concerns, or have used Covid-19 as a justification to disperse protests and other gatherings critical of government policies unrelated to the coronavirus. In all cases, the authorities intervened despite permitting other large gatherings.
  • Since January 2020, governments in at least 24 countries have enacted vague laws and measures that criminalize spreading alleged misinformation or other coverage of Covid-19, or of other public health crises, which the authorities claim threaten the public’s well-being. Governments can easily use imprecise laws as tools of repression. At least five countries have also criminalized the publication of alleged misinformation on a range of other topics, including public health.
  • Authorities in at least 51 countries have used laws and regulations adopted to prevent the spread of Covid-19, as well as counterterrorism and other measures pre-dating the pandemic, to arbitrarily arrest, detain, and prosecute critics of government responses to the coronavirus, or of policies unrelated to the pandemic, resulting in fines and imprisonment. Those targeted include journalists, bloggers and others posting online, opposition figures and activists, protesters, academics, healthcare workers, students, lawyers, cartoonists, and artists.
  • Using the new laws, laws pre-dating the pandemic, or without citing any laws, at least 33 governments have threatened critics, in some cases with prosecution, if they criticize the authorities’ response to the pandemic. Eight of these countries investigated, threatened, and dismissed medical staff for speaking publicly about the authorities’ response to the pandemic. At least eight countries have also suspended or restricted the right to request and receive information from the authorities, including on public health matters. At least 12 countries have blocked specific Covid-19-related media reports or shut down media outlets for their reporting on the pandemic.

Governments are obligated to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds online and offline, including on public health. The right to freedom of expression is integral to the enjoyment of freedom of assembly, including for public protest. Human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), permit restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly only if they are provided for by law, are strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim, including the protection of national security, public order or public health, and morals, and are nondiscriminatory. Other legitimate aims include the protection of the rights or reputation of others in the case of free speech, or, in the case of freedom of assembly, the protection of the “rights and freedom” of others.

When governments face a public emergency that “threatens the life of the nation” or “the independence or security” of a country, and they cannot achieve their public health or other public policy objectives by imposing only these restrictions, key international human rights treaties allow them temporarily to further restrict or even suspend some rights, including freedom of speech. They may do this by entering a derogation from their obligations. In such cases, governments should declare a state of emergency, show why more “severe” restrictions are necessary, and provide for such restrictions in law with sunset clauses that will ensure the temporary nature of the exceptional restrictions. As with any limitation on rights, restrictions imposed under a derogation must be nondiscriminatory. They should register these acts of derogation from their human rights obligations with the UN and, for states parties to either European or American regional instruments, with the Council of Europe or the Organization of American States, whose relevant bodies may assess the legitimacy of the derogations and monitor the restrictions

Only 44 of the 83 countries that Human Rights Watch found to have breached freedom of expression or assembly rights have declared a state of emergency. However, none registered derogations relating to freedom of speech and only eight registered derogations relating to freedom of assembly. Failing to register derogations makes it easier for governments to evade international oversight that could curb the abuse of extraordinary powers. Countries that are parties to the ICCPR and that declare states of emergencies without registering derogations nonetheless remain bound by international law governing them.

Governments also have an international obligation to provide the public with access to accurate information on health threats, including methods of preventing and controlling them. Disproportionate curbs on free speech can make it harder to counter misinformation about Covid-19, including conspiracy theories about false and dangerous treatments that have flourished on social media and offline.

“Excessive and sometimes violent crackdowns on critical speech by governments signify a perilous willingness to sideline a fundamental freedom in the name of countering Covid-19,” Simpson said. “The obligation of governments to protect the public from this deadly pandemic is not a carte blanche for placing a chokehold on information and suppressing dissent.”

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