Freedom of Expression and the COVID-19 pandemic: A snapshot of restrictions and attacks

Over a year has passed since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. During 2020, the CIVICUS Monitor documented a range of restrictions on rights introduced by governments under the pretext of protecting people’s health and lives.

While limitations on rights are allowed under international law in response to public health emergencies, international law is also clear that those limitations must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory. However, as highlighted in CIVICUS’s 2020 report People Power Under Attack, some governments used the pandemic as an opportunity to introduce or implement additional restrictions on civic freedoms.

CIVICUS’s research has consistently shown that censorship, attacks against journalists and the detention of journalists are among the most common civic space violations. This brief aims to provide an overview of the most common trends recorded under the pandemic so far that have negatively impacted on the right to the freedom of expression.

Civic Space updates from our research partners form the basis of this analysis, covering a period from January 2020 to February 2021. The information in these civic space updates is then triangulated, verified and tagged by the CIVICUS team. In addition, for the purpose of this report, the CIVICUS team disaggregated and systematised the data to analyse those freedom of expression violations committed as a direct response to the pandemic.

The freedom of expression is indispensable for the full development of a person and essential for any democratic society. The right to seek, receive and impart information is essential during a public health emergency. While international human rights law permits restrictions on the freedom of expression, it does so only if certain conditions are met. Restrictions must be provided by law, pursue a legitimate aim and be strictly necessary and proportional in relation to achieving that aim.

These principles cannot be ignored in the context of efforts to address the pandemic. States across the globe, however, have used the pandemic to impose unjustifiable restrictions on the freedom of expression, imposing censorship on those speaking out and those critical of governments, enacting legislation that allows them to suppress dissent and turning a blind eye when journalists are attacked for doing their work.

The CIVICUS Monitor identified the following trends:

  • The use of restrictive legislation to silence critical voices, including through the proposal, enactment and amendment of laws on the basis of curbing disinformation.
  • Censorship and restrictions on access to information, including through the suppression or imposition of content relating to COVID-19 and the suspension of media outlets due to their COVID-19 coverage.
  • Attacks on journalists over their reporting of the pandemic, including physical attacks, harassment, intimidation and arbitrary detention.
   OPEN NARROWED OBSTRUCTED  REPRESSED CLOSED

Use of restrictive legislation to silence dissent

During the crisis, people urgently turned to both conventional and online media to seek information about the pandemic, in order to best protect themselves and their families. Countries faced a number of challenges, not only the pandemic itself but also the rapid spread of disinformation about COVID-19. States adopted measures that they justified as necessary to curb disinformation.

The CIVICUS Monitor documented that at least 37 countries enacted or amended a law to curb the spread of disinformation, or otherwise detained or charged individuals for allegedly spreading disinformation about the pandemic [1]. From Europe to Africa, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) to Asia-Pacific and the Americas, these restrictions that had the effect of limiting the freedom of expression pointed to an apparent global trend.

While it is important to tackle disinformation about the pandemic, many governments are clearly using the threat of disinformation as a pretext to further restrict civic space. Countries where civic space is classed as obstructed or repressed by the CIVICUS Monitor accounted for more than half of the cases where restrictive legislation was passed [2].

In most of the countries where this trend was documented, the legislation was passed or amended as a direct result of the pandemic. More than half of the states in question passed emergency legislation or decrees that included provisions with the stated aim of tackling disinformation. But often, instead of adopting proper measures and ensuring people have access to information, states introduced legislation that disproportionally affected the right to the freedom of expression.

For example, in Botswana and Eswatini, new regulations were enacted to criminalise the publication of information intended to deceive the public about the pandemic. In Botswana, the Emergency Powers Act introduced offences with heavy punishments, including imprisonment of up to five years or a US$10,000 fine for anyone publishing information with ‘the intention to deceive’ the public about COVID-19 or measures taken by the government to address the pandemic.

Similarly in Asia, Thailand government invoked emergency powers in March 2020 that included a prohibition against sharing ‘false news’ or information related to COVID-19 and empowered public officials to censor these types of communications and prosecute those accused of the offence. In the same month, the Philippines passed a new emergency law, the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act, which included provisions penalising the spreading of ‘false information’ on social media and other platforms. Similar provisions were also introduced in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Palestine and Serbia among other countries

Elsewhere, amendments to penalise disinformation or ‘fake news’ were introduced to existing laws, prompting concerns that they may remain in place long after the pandemic and, if they do, may have a long-term chilling effect on journalists and activists critical of governments. In  Tajikistan, amendments were made to the Administrative Code to punish people for distributing ‘inaccurate’ and ‘untruthful’ information about COVID-19 through the press or through social and electronic networks. Similarly, in Azerbaijan, the authorities amended the information law to oblige online platforms to prevent the publication of ‘false information’ online. The amendments also prohibited the publication of information that might cause situations that endanger the public.

In Bolivia, the interim government issued a decree in March 2020 sanctioning those who ‘disinform or cause uncertainty’ among the public during the pandemic. A further decree in May 2020 expanded the original legislation, allowing for criminal sanctions. Later in May, the two decrees were revoked following criticisms by domestic and international organisations. In Brazil, a draft bill to combat ‘fake news’ was introduced for consideration by the Senate in April 2020, while in Nicaragua, legislators approved a Special Cybercrimes Law that defines and establishes punishments for a series of crimes, including ‘propagation of fake news’ committed through the use of information and communication technologies.

In some countries that already had disinformation laws, they were applied within the COVID-19 context. In  Ethiopia for instance, the Hate Speech and Disinformation Law, which was passed in February 2020, only a few weeks before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, was used to prosecute those accused of spreading disinformation about the pandemic. Yayesaw Shimelis, a journalist and producer of a political programme on Tigray TV, a station owned by the regional government, was arrested and charged under this law in late March 2020 for comments concerning the government’s COVID-19 response. In Indonesia, the authorities used criminal defamation laws to crack down on public criticism of the government’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak. By early April 2020, reports indicated that at least 51 people had been charged under criminal defamation laws for allegedly spreading ‘fake news’ about COVID-19. Similarly in Malaysia, before the adoption of the new emergency ordinance on ‘fake news’ in March 2021, the authorities applied the Communication and Multimedia Act and the Penal Code to investigate cases of ‘fake news’ and ‘improper use of network facilities’. In Algeria, the parliament amendments to the Penal Code in April 2020, which included provisions against ‘spreading false news and harming national unity and public order’.

Reactions by civil society organisations to the use of disinformation and related laws in the COVID-19 context

While acknowledging the importance of tackling disinformation about the pandemic, civil society and human rights experts around the world shared concerns about the impact of overly restrictive COVID-19-related disinformation laws on the right to free expression. In the Americas, experts in  Brazil considered the draft bill to combat ‘fake news’ as problematic because of its impact on the freedom of expression and privacy online, while in Nicaragua, the Cybercrimes Law was described by experts as a threat to the freedom of expression. In Bolivia, the two decrees on disinformation, before being revoked by the government, were criticised by civil society organisations and media freedom advocates, who said they could be used to persecute anyone criticising emergency policies.

Similar concerns were raised in Asia-Pacific, such as in  Malaysia, where civil society organisations criticised the emergency ordinance on ‘fake news’ for their vague and broad provisions, which would allow the state to target critics and human rights defenders indiscriminately. In Europe, the proposal to ban hate speech on social media in Spain was questioned by opposition parties, jurists and freedom of expression experts. In Kyrgyzstan, the law proposed by parliament faced serious objections from media watchdogs and prompted a civil society campaign urging the president to veto the legislation. In early August 2020, the president sent the draft law back to parliament for revision to take into account, among other matters, human rights issues.

Censorship and restrictions on access to information

CIVICUS Monitor data shows that censorship related to the COVID-19 pandemic occurred in 28 countries globally between January 2020 and February 2021. Most of the violations were reported at the start of the pandemic and occurred in countries where civic space is rated as closed, repressed or obstructed, such as China and Turkmenistan, but some also occurred in a few countries where civic space is rated as narrowed, such as Botswana.

Censorship and access to information violations took different forms, including suppression or imposition of content relating to COVID-19, the suspension of media outlets due to their COVID-19 coverage and the adoption of restrictive legislation restricting access to information on the pandemic.

In Tanzania, where the late President John Magufuli claimed the country was free of COVID-19, the authorities silenced people speaking about COVID-19 and took tight control of public information on the pandemic. Media outlets were banned or subjected to fines and ordered to apologise for ‘transmission of false and misleading information’ regarding the government’s handling of the pandemic. In July 2020, the national media regulator suspended Kwanza Online TV for having reposted a US embassy health alert warning of an ‘elevated risk’ of COVID-19.

A similar approach was taken at the start of the outbreak in China, where the authorities withheld information from the public and censored numerous articles and social media posts, including from families of infected individuals seeking help. Hundreds of people were penalised for ‘spreading rumours’ about the emergency online, while several human right defenders were visited by the police, who threatened them with criminal sanctions if they did not stop sharing international news reports or tweeting information about the outbreak. The Chinese Communist Party continued to censor reports on COVID-19, including research publications related to the virus, and targeted journalists, medical doctors, activists, academics and critics.

In Turkmenistan, where the government claimed the country was COVID-19-free, the authorities put pressure on doctors to participate in the cover-up of the outbreak and intimidated medical professionals who raised concerns about the lack of resources for the diagnosis and treatment of people with acute respiratory conditions. At the same time, the authorities impeded the work of media based outside Turkmenistan by blocking their websites and spreading propaganda to discredit these outlets, while only government-approved COVID-19 messages were broadcast by national, state-controlled media. The Turkmen Initiative for Human Rights (TIHR) reported renewed attempts to tamper with its website, believed to have been initiated by security services in response to TIHR’s coverage of COVID-19-related developments and other issues.

Academic freedom was the target in Bangladesh, where the authorities apparently used pressure on academic researchers to disown their research on the pandemic. A study projected that around half a million people would die from COVID-19 in Bangladesh without government action, using an epidemiological model used by researchers at Imperial College London. BRAC University denied having published research on COVID-19 and national media neither published nor broadcast local or foreign projection models. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Authority later blocked a Sweden-based online news site, Netra News, that published the study, on grounds of ‘publishing rumours and false information’.

There were also instances of security officers forcing journalists to delete material on COVID-19. This was the case for a Radio Segundo Montes journalist in  El Salvador and Luis López, a La Verdad de Vargas journalist, in Venezuela. In Chile, the visual artists’ collective Delight Lab reported threats to its members in May 2020 after projecting the word ‘hunger’ onto one of the main buildings in the capital, Santiago, in an act that was widely shared on social media. The following day, police shone lights to prevent a second projection. Photos and private information of members of the collective were reportedly published, while legislator Diego Schalper called for an investigation into the artists’ collective.

The suppression of online speech was documented in countries including Romania, Singapore and Vietnam, among others. The authorities in Vietnam cracked down on Facebook users who tried to deliver timely and valuable information about the COVID-19 pandemic in the face of heavy censorship maintained by state-controlled media. Hundreds of people were summoned to police stations and interrogated in relation to their Facebook posts.

In July 2020, in Singapore the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) office issued corrective directives to four organisations that carried statements made by Dr Paul Tambyah, physician and president of the US-based International Society of Infectious Diseases, on the outbreak of COVID-19 in foreign worker dormitories. Previously, in January 2020, Facebook raised concerns after having been ordered by the authorities to block the anti-government website Times Review for ‘repeatedly conveying falsehoods’ after the website stated that Singapore was running out of masks. Under the restrictive POFMA, Facebook would have been found guilty of an offence if it had not complied with the government’s orders, and liable to a fine of between SGD 20,000 (approx. US$14,400) and SGD 1 million (approx. US$730,000).

In Romania, at least 12 websites were shut down without judicial review by the government’s crisis unit on grounds of countering the spread of COVID-19 related ‘fake news’. According to local sources there were no clear breaches in these cases. Similarly, in Algeria, in April and May 2020, six online news websites that had reported on COVID-19 and the country’s Hirak protest movement became unavailable. As part of the state of health emergency adopted to fight the spread of COVID-19, the authorities in Jordan and Morocco suspended the publication and printing of newspapers on the grounds that they may help the virus to spread.

Following the publication of an article, ‘Sources: the actual number of Coronavirus cases in Iraq exceeds the announced by thousands’, Reuters Agency’s activities in Iraq were temporarily suspended on 2nd April 2020. The press agency’s licence was suspended for three months. It was issued with a fine of 25 million Iraqi dinars (approx. US$21,000) and mandated to make an official apology.

In Azerbaijan, Kanal24 Internet TV journalist Ibrahim Vazirov was detained on 13th April 2020 and forced to delete online reports that were critical of the government’s quarantine measures. Reportyor.info reporter Mirsahib Rahiloglu had a similar experience with regard to interviews he published with people who complained about the lack of financial support during the country’s lockdown.

Access to information was restricted in  Serbia and the United Kingdom by limiting public information sources on COVID-19, vilifying media and restricting media access to government officials and COVID-19 briefings. A conclusion adopted by the Serbian government at the end of March 2020 forbade any source other than the government’s crisis staff from informing the public on the pandemic. The conclusion further stipulates that any person disseminating information on health regulations will be held liable under the ‘regulations covering accountability and legal consequences for spreading disinformation during the state of emergency’. In the UK, government officials have vilified several media outlets and accused them of reporting ‘falsehoods and errors’. Journalists in the UK also faced limitations on participating in briefings on COVID-19 held by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other government officials. In one incident, a reporter for Open Democracy was banned from asking questions during COVID-19 briefings as government officials accused the media outlet of being a ‘campaigning’ organisation. In Greece, a decision issued by the government prohibited hospital staff from speaking with the media, and journalists were mandated to obtain permission for reporting in hospitals.

Attacks on journalists

Journalists have fulfilled a vital role during the pandemic, including by reporting on the state of medical facilities, sharing information on new restrictions and holding the authorities to account on their public health decisions. In times of uncertainty, the media proved key in disseminating reliable information about the virus and its transmission, in some cases in the absence of official information from governments. CIVICUS Monitor research however showed that this important work was often conducted at significant personal risk.

From January 2020 to February 2021, the CIVICUS Monitor recorded cases of journalists being physically attacked over their reporting of the pandemic in 24 countries. While such instances were documented worldwide, the majority of incidents took place in Africa, the Americas, Europe and Central Asia. Journalists living in countries where civic space is rated as obstructed were most likely to endure such assault, with almost half of all incidents recorded in countries with obstructed ratings. However, cases also occurred in countries with other civic space ratings.

Those who covered the enforcement of public health policies and public adhesion to these measures bore the brunt of physical attacks. In Senegal, for instance, a police officer assaulted a media team reporting on the enforcement of a curfew in the city of Touba. In Kosovojournalists were attacked when trying to interview people at a marketplace about a COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Kosovska Mitrovica. In Guatemala, a community journalist was attacked by members of the military after he filmed them patrolling without wearing masks. In Sierra Leone, journalist Fayia Amara Fayia was beaten by soldiers for photographing a quarantine centre. He was later charged with assault and disorderly behaviour, and reported that during the attack at least ten soldiers hit him with their guns, kicked him and seized his mobile phone. Such incidents were also recorded in Chad, Ghana, LiberiaParaguayTajikistan and Uganda.

In some instances, journalists faced physical attacks in retaliation for their investigation of alleged corruption or mismanagement of pandemic response. In  Nepalfive assailants attacked journalists from the Janakpur Today newspaper and Khoj Kendra website who had sought a comment from a local official about conditions in a quarantine facility in the Sahid Nagar municipality. In Bangladeshthree journalists were attacked by a local government representative for reporting on irregularities in relief distribution. One of the journalists suffered critical injuries and had to be hospitalised. In Haiti, alleged government employees assaulted eight reporters who were investigating claims that a government department was violating COVID-19 guidelines. In Ecuador, a news anchor who criticised a mayor’s pandemic management was attacked by the local authority’s associates.

As protesters occupied streets in numerous locales to demand better support from states and voice their unhappiness with restrictions, journalists who sought to cover these demonstrations were also subjected to attacks. Such protests and related attacks on journalists were particularly frequent in European countries. In  Slovenia, a journalist was hospitalised after being attacked and knocked unconscious by protesters during a rally against the government’s COVID-19 measures in the capital, Ljubljana. In Italy, a photojournalist covering anti-lockdown protests was hospitalised with head trauma after a similar attack. In Croatiatwo women journalists were attacked by protesters who were demonstrating in support of a religious congregation that held an Easter mass despite a ban on gatherings. In Germanyat least 12 journalists reported facing assaults while covering protests in the city of Leipzig in November 2020. In one of the cases, a journalist was physically attacked by police, who also threatened to arrest him and withdraw his press credentials.

The CIVICUS Monitor also documented similar incidents in the Americas. In the USA, a journalist was attacked when covering a demonstration organised by Orthodox Jewish communities against restrictions in areas of New York with high infection rates. In Canadamultiple journalists reported being assaulted and threatened while covering anti-mask events. In Panama, a journalist was assaulted by the police, resulting in two broken ribs, as he covered student-led protests for pandemic relief. Meanwhile in the MENA region, a camera operator filming a peaceful sit-in in Gaza, Palestine was assaulted by security forces controlled by the ruling Hamas party.

Intimidation and harassment

Journalists and media workers in at least 32 countries also faced intimidation or harassment for their coverage of the pandemic. These cases were particularly common in Europe and Central Asia and in Asia-Pacific. They often took the form of threats, online smear campaigns and verbal attacks against journalists covering the enforcement of restrictions or protests against these measures. In the  Netherlandsverbal abuse of journalists covering protests against movement restrictions became so common that the Dutch state news broadcaster NOS decided to remove its logo from broadcasting vans to protect its journalists. In Germany, a crew from public television station ZDF stopped reporting from a protest in Berlin due to security concerns after journalists were insulted and harassed.

While threats to media professionals often came from anonymous online users, the CIVICUS Monitor also recorded many cases where public officials and authorities directly threatened or intimidated reporters. In Nepal, a journalist for the Onlinekhabar website was threatened by two public health workers after he reported on the smuggling of medical supplies used in a local hospital’s coronavirus unit. In Chad, a radio station director received alleged death threats from the prefect of the town of Gagal in response to a COVID-19 report. In Brazil, municipal employees in Rio de Janeiro organised themselves to obstruct news crews who sought to cover the COVID-19 pandemicby coordinating shifts in front of the city’s hospitals. The employees reportedly acted to prevent recordings, intimidating journalists and interviewees and preventing criticism of municipal management of the pandemic.

In more extreme cases, intimidation was accompanied by retaliation for critical reporting. In Malaysia, for instance, journalists with Al Jazeera were subjected to an investigation for sedition, defamation and other charges over the news outlet’s documentary ‘Locked up in Malaysia's Lockdown’, which focused on the plight of undocumented migrants detained during raids in areas under tight lockdowns. Several staff members were interrogated and reported receiving threats and harassment online. Al Jazeera’s offices in Malaysia’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, were raided and a whistleblower who spoke out in the documentary was deported. In Iran, several journalists and members of civil society received police summonses for allegedly portraying the country in a negative light in their comments about the pandemic’s management.

Detention

The CIVICUS Monitor registered the detention of journalists and communicators in 34 countries, in incidents related to their coverage of the pandemic or where pandemic restrictions were used to justify arrests. These detentions took place in ten countries in Africa, seven in the Americas, six in Europe and Central Asia and five each in Asia-Pacific and MENA. In some cases journalists were detained under accusations of spreading ‘fake news’ in their reporting of the pandemic. In countries including Chile, Colombia, Kosovo, Peru and Rwanda journalists were arrested for allegedly violating restrictions, despite possessing authorisation to work or wearing press credentials.

In other cases, journalists were detained while attempting to report on relevant issues during the pandemic. In the Gambia, for example, a camera operator was detained by police officers while photographing and taking videos of the police arresting drivers protesting against a lockdown. In Chinapolice briefly detained journalists to force them to delete footage from a hospital in Wuhan. In Kazakhstan, police detained a television crew and sent them into quarantine as they attempted to film inside a hospital, despite having previously given them permission to enter the facility. In Paraguay, a journalist was arrested under accusations of providing information to criminal groups as he tried to cover the enforcement of movement restrictions at the border with Brazil. In JordanRoya TV managers were arrested for a report on the economic impact of the country’s lockdown.

Recommendations to governments

  • Make sure that any legislation enacted, or measure implemented is necessary and proportional to the public health need, not discriminatory in any way, including on the grounds of race, ethnicity, sex, sexual identity, language, religion and social origin, be limited in duration and subject to sufficient oversight by both the legislature and courts.
  • Ensure that the freedom of expression is safeguarded in all forms by bringing all national legislation into line with international law and standards and refrain from censoring social and conventional media. Any restrictions should be pursuant to an order by an independent and impartial judicial authority, and in accordance with due process and standards of legality, necessity and legitimacy. Private corporations must also not capitulate to censorship demands that are not in accordance with international human rights standards.
  • Maintain reliable and unfettered access to the internet and cease internet shutdowns that prevent people from obtaining essential information and services during the crisis. Restrictions on access to the internet cannot be justified on public order or national security grounds.
  • Repeal any legislation that criminalises expressions based on vague concepts such as “fake news” or disinformation in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic, as such laws are not compatible with the requirements of legality and proportionality.
  • Protect HRDs and journalists and take steps to address impunity for violations against them, ensuring that these violations are independently and promptly investigated and that perpetrators are brought to justice.

1 The CIVICUS Monitor does not include all incidents reported; instead, it seeks to provide a barometer of the nature and geographic spread of such cases. 

2 The CIVICUS Monitor assesses information from a range of sources to class countries in one of five civic space categories: open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed or closed.