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Pandemic and press freedom: The danger ahead

Anis Chowdhury | November 10, 2020 00:00:00


The Covid-19 pandemic hit the world when a powerful global tendency towards authoritarianism gained pace. In myopinion piece, "Declines in Press Freedom Threaten Democracy" for last year's anniversary issue of The Financial Express, I drew attention to Freedom House's Freedom in the World 2019 Report that documented "alarming" decline of democracy across the world as a growing number of countries move towards authoritarian rule.

Since 2006, more countries have seen their democracies degrade than those that have improved. Last year, according to Freedom House, 64 countries became less democratic. The pandemic has accelerated the downward slide of democracy.

A new Freedom House report, Democracy under Lockdown: The Impact of Covid-19 on the Global Struggle for Freedom, finds that since the coronavirus outbreak began, the condition of democracy and human rights have worsened in 80 countries. The deterioration is particularly acute in struggling democracies and highly repressive states.

"Virus on freedom of expression"

Press freedom was under attack even before Covid-19 struck as democracy was sliding back; the pandemic has worsened it. Speakers at a recent webinar Virus on Freedom of Expression, hosted by the FreeWord Committee of Human Rights Solidarity, warned that authorities are using the pandemic as a smokescreen to further crack down on critical media. Around the globe there have been an increase in arrests, intimidation, fake news laws and economic pressures, all of which are undermining independent journalism.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has documented attacks against at least 125 journalists in29 countries, including expulsions, arrests, interrogations, police violence, withdrawing of press passes, demands for public apologies, and seizing electronic devices. More than 20 instances have been recorded of journalists having been blocked from reporting on Covid-19, according to Index on Censorship.

RSF, in its World Press Freedom 2020Index, argues that certain governments have used the crisis to impose media restrictions that in ordinary times would be impossible. The Council of Europe Platform for the Protection of Journalists has warned that the fresh assault on media freedom amid the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened an already gloomy media freedom outlook.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned that censorship has become more severe in countries across Asia during the pandemic. Governments in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam are targeting journalists or anyone expressing their criticism about the pandemic response, according to the records of her office, OHCHR. In all 12 countries where the arrests have taken place, the stifling of press freedom is not new; they ranked quite low inRSF's Press Freedom 2020 Index.

As UNESCO notes, "to keep the public informed, journalists are putting their own safety at risk". Furthermore, "the threats to press freedom and the safety of journalists come at a time when the economic stress of the crisis is pushing many media organizations to the brink of extinction, at exactly the moment they are most needed".

"Epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures"

The pandemic has turned out to be a boon to governments with an autocratic bent. It has presented autocrats, and semi-autocrats an opportunity to grab even more power. But it is happening in democracies, too. As the pandemic brings the world to a convulsive halt and anxious citizens demand action, governments across the globe are invoking executive powers and seizing virtually dictatorial authority with scant resistance.

In the UK, for instance, the Prime Minister announced measures, in advance of parliamentary approvals, restricting citizens' movement, to be enforced by the police. The Coronavirus Act, rammed through parliament without much debate or scrutiny, included a swathe of sweeping powers for the state, such as to detain and isolate people indefinitely, ban public gatherings including protests, and shut down ports and airports, all with little oversight. No one opposed the year-long postponing of 120 local elections, including the mayoralties of London, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester.

Such decisions could take place in the 'mother of liberal democracy' is unimaginable. Thus, Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights warned, "We could have a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures following close if not on the heels of a health epidemic."

The pandemic is already redefining norms. In almost every country around the world, as the new laws broaden state power allowing governments to detain people indefinitely and infringe on freedoms of assembly and expression, they could also shape civic life, politics and economies for decades to come.

As the lockdowns are eased, they are being replaced by mass surveillance. Citizens are allowing their governments to know where they are and who they have met in exchange for the freedom to step outside their homes. Phone data, credit card payments, CCTV have all been used to track citizens.

Governments may continue to acquire more power while their citizens are distracted. People may not recognise the rights they have ceded until it is too late to reclaim them. It is far from clear what will become of the emergency laws when the crisis passes. Past experiences tell us that over time, emergency decrees permeate legal structures and become normalised.

"Acceptable authoritarianism": The new normal?

The longer the crisis persists, the higher the prospect for authoritarian post-Covid world is. A recent study published by the National Institute of Health, shows that when people are in an environment that is rife with infectious diseases, people are more open to and inclined towards authoritarianism.

It is also argued that in countries where authoritarianism is on the rise, there is typically little space for civil society activists or independent media to demand change, or to campaign for their democratic rights and freedoms.

Therefore, unfortunately, there are good reasons to believe that authoritarian governance will be the "new normal" in the post-COVID world.

Thus, some observers floated the idea of "acceptable authoritarianism". Authoritarian governance may also be appealing as people look at virus containment success of China and Vietnam vis-à-vis the US and the UK or most other European democracies.

The dangers are clear. The pandemic may well lead to a serious decline in democracy and erosion of press freedom around the world.

Thailand & Chile: Beacons of hope?

Defying police orders and a draconian state of emergency decree, thousands of Thai protesters continued to take to the streets demanding the government of prime minister, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who usurp power in a coup in 2014, to resign. The Thai people did not wait for a charismatic leader; but rose spontaneously to claim back democracy. When one protest leader is arrested, another advances to lead.

One student leader told the Guardian that she did not fear being arrested. Her only concern was that the pro-democracy movement must continue. "We discuss about having first and second rows [of protest leaders]," she said. "I tell my friends to get them ready: 'One day I will be arrested. You don't have to be worried about me.'"

In a historic feat, and with massive participation in the midst of the pandemic, Chilean citizens have - expressed their resounding rejection of the current Constitution, promulgated in 1980, during the dictatorship presided over by General Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990).

Self-convened Chilean citizenry was demonstrating peacefully over the years against the violation of human rights. When last year in October, young people rejected the rise in the fares of the Santiago metro, the whole country joined in, turning the fare-hike protest into a movement to restore people's political, social and economic rights by replacing General Pinochet's constitution.

A 28-year-old sports teacher who joined the protest told a freelance journalist, "This protest is not about 30 pesos, but 30 years. It's 30 years since the return to democracy, but we have preserved a constitution made under the dictatorship. We have gone to the streets to ask for our dignity, and this will not stop until we get it."

Chile's centre-right president, Sebastián Piñera, tried to crush the movement by declaring a state of emergency, sending military out onto the streets and installing a curfew in cities across the nation for the first time since the end of the brutal dictatorship of the 1970s and '80s.

The escalating protests left scores of deaths (19 according to the official figures). Drawing attention to "the large number of deaths and injuries", the United Nations denounced the arbitrary and indiscriminate use of pellets to contain the protests and asked the country's security forces to stop using these projectiles "immediately".

All efforts by the government to subdue the unrest - including shuffling the president's cabinet - failed spectacularly. And Piñera had to give in to popular pressure a month later, announcing a plebiscite to be held in April 2020 on the validity of the Constitution, but had to be postponed until October 25 due to the pandemic.

Almost 79% of the voters opted for a new Constitution to be drawn up by a Constituent Agreement - whose delegates represented in equal numbers by men and women - will be elected on April 11 of next year and will have a maximum period of eleven months to complete it.

Reclaiming rights

Hopefully, these events will inspire people elsewhere. As they conquer the fear of the pandemic, they will also see how they were manipulated. They will also gain courage to stand up to the autocrats - new and old - to reclaim back their democratic rights, and to make their governments truly accountable.

When government is truly of the people then it has, in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, a "singular power," with no need to corral others into sharing its beliefs, instead being able to rely on making "them permeate the thinking of everyone by a sort of enormous pressure of the mind of all upon the individual intelligence."

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Anis Chowdhury, Adjunct Professor at Western Sydney University and the University of New South Wales (Australia), held senior United Nations positions in New York and Bangkok.

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