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  • Unjustified restrictions on access to information and censorship and surveillance;
  • Activists detained for disseminating critical information about COVID-19
  • Targeted attacks against journalists and media outlets

It has only been one month since the declaration of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic but already the CIVICUS Monitor is documenting an alarming deterioration in civic space across 40 countries. A new brief released today by the CIVICUS Monitor, shows that many governments are responding to the pandemic in an unjustifiable and unnecessary manner. 

According to the CIVICUS Monitor, the state of civic freedoms was already on the decline with just 3% of the world’s population living in countries where their fundamental rights are in general, protected and respected countries before COVID-19. In some countries, emergency powers are accelerating this trend. Information from civil society and the media shows that governments may be exceeding the justifiable restrictions in their response to the pandemic, negatively affecting civic freedoms in many parts of the world.

Freedom of expression has come under severe attack over the last month. Censorship is being used by states like China, El Salvador and Vietnam to silence activists, journalists and other government critics to suppress critical information during the pandemic. There have also been reports of individuals being threatened or arrested for criticising the state response or for disseminating information on the pandemic in countries like Iran, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.

The media and journalists play a critical role in reporting on the pandemic. However, there have been reports of countries shutting down media outlets, restricting the media and criminalising journalists. Jordan, Oman, Morocco, and Yemen suspended newspaper printing and distribution in response to the pandemic while journalists have been arrested in Kenya and Venezuela. Governments in Turkey and Malaysia have also resorted to repressive laws governing ‘fake news’ to combat misinformation about the virus. 

“Information is key in the battle against COVID-19. Censoring both social and conventional media is limiting the dissemination of critical information and putting more people at risk. Governments must ensure that freedom of expression is safeguarded in all forms while addressing the pandemic.” said Marianna Belalba, Civic Space Research Lead for the CIVICUS Monitor.

Human rights defenders play a critical role during this global crisis especially by holding officials to account. Yet, there are some indications that governments and other actors are using the pandemic to target human rights defenders and government critics. Activists have been arrested in Honduras under the pretext of combating the virus while in Colombia death squads are taking advantage of the lockdowns to kill rural activists. There have also been reports of police abuse during the lockdown including the use of excessive force or inhuman and degrading treatment by law enforcement officials in the Philippines and Kenya.

The CIVICUS Monitor is also concerned that tracking entire populations to combat COVID-19 could pave the way to more invasive forms of surveillance and civic space restrictions for example in China and Israel. At the same time, overly broad emergency laws and new restrictive legislation have or are being legislated in countries like Hungary and Cambodia which are inconsistent with international law and standards.

“We urge the authorities to respect the law during lockdown and ensure that any surveillance measures adopted are lawful, necessary and proportionate.” 

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association recently stated that “human rights is the compass” to overcome this pandemic and that civil society organisations should be seen as strategic partners in this. It is therefore crucial that we push back on the restrictions and attacks against civil society if we are to overcome the unprecedented challenge posed by COVID-19.

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