Six months since the pandemic: Civic freedoms under threat
Johannesburg 5 October, 2020
- People continue to mobilise to demand their rights during COVID-19 pandemic
- Violation of protesters' rights, including use of excessive force
- Restrictions on freedom of expression and access to information continue
Just over six months since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic, civic freedoms remain under threat across the world. A new brief released today by the CIVICUS Monitor documents ongoing and unjustifiable restrictions on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. The brief also finds that despite these restrictions, people continue to fight back and mobilise through various forms of protest.
Protests against racial injustice under the #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement featured prominently during this period. The killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a Minneapolis police officer on 25th May 2020, sparked massive protests against police brutality in the USA. Protests in various US states were often met with unnecessary and excessive force. BLM protests spread to all corners of the globe, including the UK, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Senegal.
During the period 11 April 2020 to 31 August 2020, the CIVICUS Monitor has documented a number of violations during protests, such as protests disruptions, the detention of protesters and the use of excessive force by authorities. In an extreme case of excessive force, six people, including a pregnant woman, were killed in Guinea, during a protest staged against a COVID-19 police checkpoint and roadblock.
“The COVID-19 crisis should not be used as a pretext to suppress the right to peaceful assembly. The use of excessive force by the authorities to disperse protests is contrary to international law, even during a state of emergency,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, CIVICUS Monitor Lead.
Freedom of expression continues to remain under threat. Under the guise of curbing the spread of ‘fake news’ about the pandemic, states have taken steps to censor citizens, targeted media outlets and detained journalists. In Turkmenistan, where the government has continued to deny the existence of a COVID-19 outbreak, authorities have detained and intimidated citizens, including doctors, for speaking out about the pandemic in public places.
Harassment and intimidation have often been used to silence dissent in many states. In Zimbabwe, investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested and charged with “incitement to participate in public violence”, after he exposed corruption in the procurement of COVID-19 supplies.
States have also enacted overly broad emergency legislation or passed restrictive legislation without adequate consultation. In many cases, emergency legislation has been used to crack down on so-called ‘fake news’ on the pandemic.
“The free flow of information is essential, particularly during a public health emergency. It is fundamental that the media can operate in a free and uncensored environment. We call on states to refrain from imposing unjustifiable restrictions to the free flow of information,” said Belalba Barreto.
While COVID-19 restrictions imposed by states have affected all people, they have disproportionately impacted excluded groups already at risk prior to the pandemic. LGBTQI+ groups in Uganda and Panama, migrant workers in India, and Rohingya people in Myanmar have had their rights further undermined during this time, as is the case with other excluded groups around the globe.
From socially distanced to symbolic and online protests, people have continued to take to the streets to demand their fundamental rights in many creative ways during the pandemic. For example, in Palestine, feminists organised balcony protests against the surge of gender-based violence during the pandemic. In Brazil, protesters put up 1,000 crosses paying tribute to COVID-19 victims on the lawn in front of key government buildings, calling out President Jair Bolsonaro for denying the dangers posed by COVID-19.
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