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

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

Muddying the waters in the Musina Makhado economic zone

The public participation process on the environmental impact assessment for the area’s special economic zone has been shambolic

How US foreign policy under Donald Trump has affected Africa

Lesotho has been used as a microcosm in this article to reflect how the foreign policy has affected Africa

We should not ignore Guinea’s constitutional coup

Citizens have for a year protested against the president seeking a third term in office despite a two-term limit. Many have been killed — and 90 more people died in this week’s crackdown

‘Pro-family’ campaigners ignore pregnant women dying during Covid lockdowns

Conservative groups are fighting efforts to expand African women’s access to healthcare. Do they care about women all the time, or only when they’re procreating?

Australian journalists flee China fearing arrest

Their dramatic overnight exit came following days of secret wrangling that had seen both men holed up in Australia's diplomatic missions to escape the clutches of China's feared security police

Where do Africans study abroad?

China is becoming the preferred destination for countries such as Ghana and Nigeria
Advertising

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Meyiwa murder case postponed amid drama in court

The murder case of Senzo Meyiwa has been postponed to next month after the appearance of the five suspects in the Boksburg magistrate’s court took an unexpected turn

Does the Expropriation Bill muddy the land question even further?

Land ownership and its equitable distribution has floundered. Changes to a section of the constitution and the expropriation act are now before parliament, but do they offer any solution?

Wheeling and dealing for a Covid-19 vaccine

A Covid-19 jab could cost hundreds of rands. Or not. It’s anyone’s guess. Could another pandemic almost a century ago hold clues for handling the coronavirus today?

The European companies that armed the Ivorian civil war

AN OCCRP investigation reveals that Gunvor and Semlex brokered weapons-for-oil deals in early 2011 when Côte d’Ivoire was in crisis, despite a UN arms embargo
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday