Censorship, surveillance could be the biggest rights challenges post Covid-19

Significant public attention in relation to Covid-19 has focused on the economic dimensions of the virus resulting in joblessness and deprivation on a monumental scale. But something else is severely under threat — civic space — basically the right to freely organise, participate and communicate in public life.

Over the past few months, while health and economic concerns have taken public stage, insidious power grabs have been taking place, prompting the United Nation’s special expert on the right to privacy to warn that “dictatorships and authoritarian societies often start in the face of a threat”. 

Civic space was already under pressure before the pandemic. As Covid-19 concerns were first surfacing, the CIVICUS Monitor — our participatory research platform that assesses global civic space conditions — reported that only 3% of the world’s population were living in countries where the core civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression were adequately protected. Since then, Monitor research shows that several alarming trends have further accelerated the erosion of civic space.

China’s government has aggressively scrubbed information from the internet about its response to Covid-19 and the extent of its spread. At the same time, it has pushed through carefully crafted propaganda to promote the idea that its response to the pandemic was effective while doubling down on measures to monitor and restrict people’s activities. Such practices are being copied by other repressive governments. 

In Vietnam, scores of people have been summoned to police stations and fined for posting information about the pandemic on social media. In Pakistan, protesting medical workers seeking to raise awareness about the lack of personal protective equipment for frontline staff were beaten and arrested.

Overarching surveillance in the name of “contact tracing” to control the spread of the pandemic has been ramped up from Israel to Singapore, creating hurdles for civic space and activism.

But the challenge is not only restricted to governments with poor records on civic freedoms. South Africa has enacted regulations under its disaster management law, criminalising any statement intended to deceive people about Covid-19 or the government response to the pandemic. Although this has been couched in benign language around the need to protect the public from disinformation, the dangers are evident.

In Brazil, one of the worst-hit countries, the government has used the Covid-19 crisis to restrict access to information — it abruptly stopped releasing the official number of cases and even wiped data from an official site prompting the Supreme Court to step in to reinstate the information.

In the United States, the White House has sought to prevent the country’s top infectious diseases expert from testifying before a congressional committee looking into the administration’s response to the pandemic.

Bizarrely, the latest update of the Edelman Trust Barometer points to higher levels of trust in government responses to the pandemic. Some of the countries reporting increased trust in government include China, India and Saudi Arabia.

They fare abysmally in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index  and their current governments have been known to hound whistleblowers, investigative journalists and rights defenders. Without adequate civic space, which is the bedrock of an open and democratic society, studies of public perceptions can be arguably influenced by extraneous factors. 

International law and constitutional principles mandate that restrictions on civic space must stand the test of proportionality and necessity in a democratic society. Yet the pendulum seems to have swung away from the core civic freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association.

Rampant censorship and runaway surveillance could create a post 9/11-like situation where torture and enforced disappearances were justified in the name of keeping people safe.

So grave is the challenge that the UN secretary general António Guterres

 has cautioned “against the background of rising ethno-nationalism, populism, authoritarianism and a push back against human rights in some countries, the crisis can provide a pretext to adopt repressive measures unrelated to the pandemic”. 

Our political leaders are making life-or-death decisions. The need to access credible information, shape decisions and hold decision makers to account has never been more acute.

Concerned citizens, the media and civil society organisations need civic space not only to ensure better decisions now but also to protect the interests of future generations. The post 9/11 experience has taught us that the price of hard-won rights is eternal vigilance.

Mandeep Tiwana is the CIVICUS Chief Programmes Officer and Marianna Belalba Barreto is the civic space research lead at the CIVICUS Monitor, an online participatory platform that tracks threats to civil society in every country

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