Human rights activists were generally downbeat about the global state of affairs in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, often pointing to 2020 as one of the worst years in memory for declining civil liberties.
Here are seven ways governments have used the Chinese coronavirus pandemic to diminish human rights and civil liberties.
Freedom of Speech: The United Nations was among many agencies and advocacy groups to worry about the damage inflicted on freedom of speech during the pandemic, which included both rampant disinformation and ham-handed restrictions on speech in the name of controlling “disinformation.”
“People have died because governments have lied, hidden information, detained reporters, failed to level with people about the nature of the threat, and criminalized individuals under the guise of ‘spreading false information. People have suffered because some governments would rather protect themselves from criticism than allow people to share information, learn about the outbreak, know what officials are or are not doing to protect them,” U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye said in July.
“In the past three months, numerous governments have used the COVID [Chinese coronavirus] -pandemic to repress expression in violation of their obligations under human rights law,” Kaye continued, citing Belarus, Cambodia, China, Iran, Egypt, India, Myanmar, and Turkey as nations of particular concern.
“I am further concerned about efforts to repress disinformation using tools of criminal law, which are likely to hamper the free flow of information, such as in Brazil and Malaysia,” Kaye added.
Press freedom: Related to the free speech issue, but distinct enough to consider the subject on its own, is the damage inflicted upon journalism by the pandemic. In a year-end report published last week, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) found more reporters imprisoned around the world than ever before, many arrested for coverage of the pandemic that contradicted official narratives. Unsurprisingly, Communist China was especially brutal about arresting reporters for pandemic coverage that challenged the government.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published a similar report, finding over 130 members of the press jailed for reporting on the pandemic, including citizen journalists.
“Behind every single one of these cases is the fate of a person who faces criminal trials, long imprisonment and often mistreatment because he did not submit to censorship and repression,” said RSF’s director in Germany, Katja Gloger.
Religious freedom: Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito warned in November that the pandemic imposed “previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty, from freedom of speech down to the right to a speedy trial, since almost every activity involving human contact has been restricted.”
“The COVID crisis has served as a sort of constitutional stress test, and in doing so, it has highlighted disturbing trends that were already present before the virus struck,” Alito said.