How the coronavirus could trigger a backslide on freedom around the world

A surveillance camera is seen in a display window of a real estate agent in Shanghai last week. (Aly Song/Reuters)
A surveillance camera is seen in a display window of a real estate agent in Shanghai last week. (Aly Song/Reuters)

Last Tuesday, Moscow banned gatherings with more than 5,000 attendees until April 10, arguing that the move was necessary to limit the spread of covid-19. While such restrictions may be essential during a public health emergency, the announcement came on the same day President Vladimir Putin endorsed a proposal allowing him to remain in office until 2036. In Russia’s largest city — where the opposition has previously mobilized tens of thousands of people despite government efforts to suppress them and where there were just 20 confirmed cases across the country at that point — the decision to restrict free assembly is worthy of scrutiny.

Russia is not alone. Authorities worldwide are using the coronavirus as a pretext to crack down on human rights for political purposes. Though some limitations are undoubtedly necessary to address a pandemic, there is a real risk that this crisis could trigger a lasting global backslide in fundamental freedoms — and it’s already started.

For example, while a pandemic creates an ideal situation for disinformation, many governments are using this threat to justify heavy censorship, smothering independent sources of information along with any legitimately harmful content. Iran, a leading Internet freedom violator, has become the epicenter of the Middle East’s coronavirus outbreak. During the government’s scramble to respond, Internet connectivity dipped and Wikipedia’s Farsi edition was temporarily blocked, according to civil society group Netblocks — just as similar blunt restrictions were imposed amid nationwide protests in November.

China has also deployed its sophisticated censorship apparatus against people contradicting the government’s narrative and those simply seeking health information. CitizenLab found 45 keywords censored across the live-streaming platform YY and 516 on WeChat, including “Wuhan + CCP + Crisis + Beijing” and “Supplementary + Western medicine + Coronavirus.” Given these platforms’ global user base, this silencing of information reaches far beyond China.

And, using its controversial Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA), Singapore ordered Facebook to restrict domestic access to the States Times Review’s page. While the page may have published some problematic coronavirus-related content, it is run by a government critic, and authorities have repeatedly invoked POFMA to suppress dissenting voices.

Moreover, authorities are citing covid-19 to expand their monitoring capabilities beyond what is necessary for public health surveillance. In China, residents must use a new app that determines their health status, assigning a color-coded designation based on unspecified criteria to dictate whether they can move freely. It appears to automatically share users’ location with police. Moscow is following a similar playbook, using citywide, real-time facial recognition to identify people breaking quarantine. Over the past year, Muscovites have experienced protest-related arrests and connectivity disruptions, and this new biometric system will be used beyond tracking quarantine violators and long after the outbreak.

Finally, like Moscow last week, some governments are restricting large gatherings to increase social distancing. In some cases, this may be necessary; the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended such an action on Sunday. But not all countries have good records on free assembly. Despite reporting no cases within the country at the time, a Kyrgyzstan court originally banned mass rallies in Bishkek partly because of the coronavirus. The decision came just days after a protest in support of a jailed politician ended in a violent clash, with police arresting numerous attendees. The coronavirus was also cited to ban an International Women’s Day rally. Similarly, El Salvador barred gatherings with more than 500 people on Wednesday, even with no confirmed cases. Iraq, which has been rocked by protests for months, has also prohibited public gatherings.

Even liberal democracies risk normalizing emergency measures. For example, to track infections, the United States reportedly pressured airlines to provide international travelers’ phone numbers and email addresses. It is important to communicate with and monitor infected passengers, but it is also crucial to ensure that any information collected is not misused and that these practices do not continue long after.

Certain limitations on fundamental freedoms are unavoidable during public health crises. But such restrictions must be transparent, and necessary and proportionate to limiting the outbreak. Temporarily curbing mass gatherings can be justified, as long as authorities are transparent and provide details about when restrictions will be lifted. Yet much of the enhanced surveillance and censorship of recent weeks does not meet these standards.

If governments are allowed to impose indefinite and disproportionate restrictions on access to information, free expression, free assembly and privacy in the name of stopping covid-19, the negative effects will extend far beyond this outbreak. People will suffer a lasting deterioration in basic freedoms, and they will lose confidence in the institutions tasked with protecting them. That means that when the next public health threat emerges, both governments and citizens may be even less prepared to respond appropriately.

Allie Funk is a research analyst and Isabel Linzer a research associate at Freedom House.

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