COVID-19 and free speech
23rd March 2021
In early 2020 the world was faced with a new challenge: the COVID-19 pandemic. Within weeks, the focus of every government was, in theory, to stop the spread of COVID-19, and a great deal of legislative effort undoubtedly contributed to this. However, while the world was distracted by the virus, and the very visible fight to control it, many countries passed legislation that encroached dramatically on the right to free speech. Human Rights Watch has reported that over 80 countries worldwide have used the justification of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic to infringe on the right to free speech and peaceful public assembly. Of those, only 44 that violated freedom of speech and assembly have declared a state of emergency due to COVID-19.
One of the ways governments have encroached on free speech since the pandemic is through repression of the media. Human Rights Watch reports that 51 countries have engaged in arbitrary arrests, detentions, and prosecutions. Governments used laws that pre-date the COVID-19 pandemic to persecute people for voicing opposition to both government responses to the pandemic, as well as other unrelated policies. In Egypt, between March and June 2020, nine medical staff were detained and charged for “spreading fake news” and “joining an unlawful organization”, for highlighting and speaking publicly about the lack of personal protective equipment for medical personnel.
Around 24 governments have introduced new laws since the start of the pandemic prohibiting journalists from disputing government positions and actions taken to counter COVID-19. This includes reporting on what is deemed to be information that causes panic or mistrust among other things due to COVID-19. In Hungary, the Penal Code was amended to include the prosecution of anyone deemed to be spreading “false information”, this allows for a prison’s sentences for up to 5 years. Meanwhile, in China, a reporter, Zhang Zhan, was jailed and subsequently sentenced to four years in prison for traveling to Wuhan to report on the pandemic. At least 33 countries’ officials have threatened journalists and lawyers for undermining and contradicting their responses to COVID-19. This included China and Egypt expelling foreign journalists. Nine governments have put barriers in place to limit access to public health information and are only allowing pro-government media organisations to cover the pandemic. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has been accused of acting in a manner that puts all Brazilians in harm’s way by encouraging them not to comply with measures used to slow the spread of COVID-19, such as social distancing.
Human Rights Watch also reported that in 18 countries, state representatives have physically assaulted journalists. In India, in March 2020, 10 journalists were beaten by police for attempting to report on a checkpoint that was set up to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the Andhra Pradesh State. The checkpoint had cut villagers off from their homes.
“Around 24 governments have introduced new laws since the start of the pandemic prohibiting
journalists from disputing government positions and actions taken to counter COVID-19.”
In addition to censoring and persecuting the media, states have used the pandemic as an excuse to impede people’s right to protest. Authorities in at least 10 countries have arbitrarily banned or broken up protests. These protests were often in response to the governments’ handling of COVID-19. Governments used regulations put in place for COVID-19 to end unrelated gatherings and protests by opposition groups. In Turkey, authorities used the pandemic to try and reduce the influence of the leading bar association, which often criticises the government’s human rights violations. In addition to this, in Istanbul, public gatherings were banned due to the pandemic, but only in two districts which both have Boğaziçi University campuses. In Greece, peaceful protesters affiliated with the Greek Communist Party, who were obeying social distancing guidelines and wearing masks, were forcibly dispersed and arrested in Athens under the pretext that they were violating COVID-19 regulations. Last February, just as COVID-19 was beginning, the Canadian government controversially introduced legislation that gives heavy fines and even jail time to people who disrupt energy infrastructure projects. An Alberta minister said it was a great time to build the Trans Mountain Pipeline, as protests of more than 15 people were illegal due to the pandemic. The Trans Mountain Pipeline project had been heavily protested in the past by First Nations groups and environmentalists as they argued that they had not been properly consulted and the approval process was flawed. While in Ukraine, 13 activists were charged for breaching COVID-19 regulation when they gathered to commemorate the killing of a human rights lawyer and a journalist in Moscow in 2009, in January 2021.
While there has been an increasing focus on the spread of disinformation or fake news in recent years, the actions of governments often go far beyond limiting disinformation. This, coupled with the fear of COVID-19, has led to governments around the world curtailing free speech and the right to protest, all in the name of public safety. This willingness to take advantage of a global health crisis to increase their control over their populations shows a worrying level of cynicism among those in power. It is important for individuals and organisations to continue publicising violations of free speech, lest these injustices become more common.