People's Stories Freedom

Covid-19 triggers wave of free speech abuse
by Human Rights Watch, agencies
Feb. 2021
At least 83 governments worldwide have used the Covid-19 pandemic to justify violating the exercise of free speech and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities have attacked, detained, prosecuted, and in some cases killed critics, broken up peaceful protests, closed media outlets, and enacted vague laws criminalizing speech that they claim threatens public health.
The victims include journalists, activists, healthcare workers, political opposition groups, and others who have criticized government responses to the coronavirus.
“Governments should counter Covid-19 by encouraging people to mask up, not shut up,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Beating, detaining, prosecuting, and censoring peaceful critics violates many fundamental rights, including free speech, while doing nothing to stop the pandemic.”
Governments and other state authorities should immediately end excessive restrictions on free speech in the name of preventing the spread of Covid-19 and hold to account those responsible for serious human rights violations and abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
The United Nations Human Rights Council in its session beginning February 22, 2021, should commission a new report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights focusing on states’ compliance with their human rights obligations in responding to Covid-19, including the impact of restrictions on free speech and peaceful assembly.
Human Rights Watch reviewed national government responses around the world to the Covid-19 pandemic and found that unlawful interference with free speech has been one of the most common forms of overreach. In some countries, violations were limited. In others, such as China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Vietnam, government violations affected hundreds or thousands of people.
In some countries, including Bangladesh, China, and Egypt, people remain in detention at the time of writing simply for criticizing government responses to Covid-19 months earlier.
They include Zhang Zhan, a 37-year-old citizen journalist, who in December was sentenced to four years in prison by a Shanghai court for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” by traveling in February 2020 to Wuhan and reporting from there on the coronavirus outbreak. Officials have been force-feeding Zhang since she started a hunger strike soon after her detention in May and her health is deteriorating, her lawyer said.
“I spend every day in fear,” Zhang said before her conviction. “I am afraid when an Army officer threatens me. Or when the police tell me they’d beat me to death. Or when a friend warns me that the National Security Department is onto me. … I’m just documenting the truth. Why can’t I show the truth?”
Human Rights Watch identified the following trends:
Military or police forces in at least 18 countries physically assaulted journalists, bloggers, and protesters, including some who criticized government responses to Covid-19 such as insufficient healthcare funding, lockdowns, and a lack of masks and gloves for medical workers. Abuses include firing live ammunition at peaceful protesters, beating them at checkpoints, and assaulting them in detention, with apparent impunity. In most cases, these forces said they were enforcing Covid-19-related regulations. In Uganda, security forces also killed dozens of protesters.
Authorities in at least 10 countries have arbitrarily banned or broken up protests against government responses to Covid-19, in some cases citing social distancing concerns, or have used Covid-19 as a justification to disperse protests and other gatherings critical of government policies unrelated to the coronavirus. In all cases, the authorities intervened despite permitting other large gatherings.
Since January 2020, governments in at least 24 countries have enacted vague laws and measures that criminalize spreading alleged misinformation or other coverage of Covid-19, or of other public health crises, which the authorities claim threaten the public’s well-being. Governments can easily use imprecise laws as tools of repression. At least five countries have also criminalized the publication of alleged misinformation on a range of other topics, including public health.
Authorities in at least 51 countries have used laws and regulations adopted to prevent the spread of Covid-19, as well as counterterrorism and other measures pre-dating the pandemic, to arbitrarily arrest, detain, and prosecute critics of government responses to the coronavirus, or of policies unrelated to the pandemic, resulting in fines and imprisonment. Those targeted include journalists, bloggers and others posting online, opposition figures and activists, protesters, academics, healthcare workers, students, lawyers, cartoonists, and artists.
Using the new laws, laws pre-dating the pandemic, or without citing any laws, at least 33 governments have threatened critics, in some cases with prosecution, if they criticize the authorities’ response to the pandemic. Eight of these countries investigated, threatened, and dismissed medical staff for speaking publicly about the authorities’ response to the pandemic.
At least eight countries have also suspended or restricted the right to request and receive information from the authorities, including on public health matters. At least 12 countries have blocked specific Covid-19-related media reports or shut down media outlets for their reporting on the pandemic.
Governments are obligated to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds online and offline, including on public health. The right to freedom of expression is integral to the enjoyment of freedom of assembly, including for public protest.
Human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), permit restrictions on freedom of speech and assembly only if they are provided for by law, are strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate aim, including the protection of national security, public order or public health, and morals, and are nondiscriminatory.
Other legitimate aims include the protection of the rights or reputation of others in the case of free speech, or, in the case of freedom of assembly, the protection of the “rights and freedom” of others.
When governments face a public emergency that “threatens the life of the nation” or “the independence or security” of a country, and they cannot achieve their public health or other public policy objectives by imposing only these restrictions, key international human rights treaties allow them temporarily to further restrict or even suspend some rights, including freedom of speech. They may do this by entering a derogation from their obligations.
In such cases, governments should declare a state of emergency, show why more “severe” restrictions are necessary, and provide for such restrictions in law with sunset clauses that will ensure the temporary nature of the exceptional restrictions. As with any limitation on rights, restrictions imposed under a derogation must be nondiscriminatory.
They should register these acts of derogation from their human rights obligations with the UN and, for states parties to either European or American regional instruments, with the Council of Europe or the Organization of American States, whose relevant bodies may assess the legitimacy of the derogations and monitor the restrictions.
Only 44 of the 83 countries that Human Rights Watch found to have breached freedom of expression or assembly rights have declared a state of emergency. However, none registered derogations relating to freedom of speech and only eight registered derogations relating to freedom of assembly.
Failing to register derogations makes it easier for governments to evade international oversight that could curb the abuse of extraordinary powers. Countries that are parties to the ICCPR and that declare states of emergencies without registering derogations nonetheless remain bound by international law governing them.
Governments also have an international obligation to provide the public with access to accurate information on health threats, including methods of preventing and controlling them. Disproportionate curbs on free speech can make it harder to counter misinformation about Covid-19, including conspiracy theories about false and dangerous treatments that have flourished on social media and offline.
“Excessive and sometimes violent crackdowns on critical speech by governments signify a perilous willingness to sideline a fundamental freedom in the name of countering Covid-19,” Simpson said. “The obligation of governments to protect the public from this deadly pandemic is not a carte blanche for placing a chokehold on information and suppressing dissent.”
On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 a “public health emergency of international concern” and on March 11 it declared the coronavirus a pandemic. Since then, Human Rights Watch has identified violations of the rights to freedom of expression and assembly in 83 countries, based on its own research, as well as outside sources including the Covid-19 Civic Freedom Tracker of the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ICNL) and European Center for Not-For-Profit Law (ECNL), reports by other nongovernmental organizations and the United Nations, and international and local media.
Human Rights Watch collaborated closely with ICNL, ECNL, and the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism in preparing this report, and shared all cases identified during the research with the ICNL for its tracker. The true extent of the abuses may be greater. Production of this report was supported in part by a grant from the Open Society Foundation.
Violence Against Journalists, Peaceful Protesters, Opposition Activists, Lawyers
Security forces or state officials in at least 18 countries have physically assaulted journalists and bloggers reporting on Covid-19-related policies, as well as protesters, opposition activists, and lawyers, including some who criticized government responses to Covid-19. In most cases, the security forces justified their excessive use of force by saying they were enforcing Covid-19 regulations.
* Access the report:

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Starving Children Don’t Cry
by Nicholas Kristof
New York Times
Jan. 2021
Starvation is agonizing and degrading. You lose control of your bowels. Your skin peels off, your hair falls out, you hallucinate and you may go blind from lack of vitamin A. While you waste away, your body cannibalizes itself: It consumes its own muscles, even the heart.
Yet Abdo Sayid, a 4-year-old boy so emaciated he weighed just 14 pounds, wasn’t crying when he was brought to a hospital recently in Aden, Yemen. That’s because children who are starving don’t cry or even frown. Instead, they are eerily calm; they appear apathetic, often expressionless. A body that is starving doesn’t waste energy on tears. It directs every calorie to keep the major organs functioning.
Abdo died soon after arriving at the hospital. A photographer named Giles Clarke, a friend of mine whom I met on my last trip to Yemen, was there again and captured the scene.
His photographs, including those with this column, are painful to witness, but many families, including Abdo’s, allow photography — indeed, want photos to be circulated — because they hope that the world will understand that children are dying needlessly of hunger, and that help is desperately needed to avert more child deaths.
The world had pretty much licked famine, until 2020. The last famine declared by the United Nations authorities was in a small part of South Sudan for a few months in 2017 — but now the U.N. warns that famine is looming in Yemen, South Sudan, Burkina Faso and northeastern Nigeria, with 16 other countries slightly behind in that trajectory toward catastrophe.
“Famines are now back,” said Mark Lowcock, the United Nations humanitarian chief. “It will be a horrible stain on humanity for decades to come if we become the generation to oversee the return of such a terrible scourge. This is still avoidable.”
We have been privileged to live in a thrilling epoch in history in which child mortality has plunged, disease and famine retreated, literacy soared and human well-being skyrocketed.
At this time of the year I normally counter all my gloomy columns by writing that the previous year was the best in human history, by such metrics as the share of children dying by the age of 5. But 2020 was not the best year in human history. It was an annus horribilis, and UNICEF warns that the result may be 10,000 additional children dying each month from hunger.
The setback in developing countries has been exacerbated by passivity, paralysis and indifference in the United States and Europe, and in international organizations like the World Bank.
The biggest cause of the global crisis is the coronavirus pandemic, but only indirectly. Outside of the rich world, the casualties are not octogenarians with the virus so much as children dying of hunger because of economic disruptions, or middle-aged adults dying of AIDS because they can’t get medicines.
The capital of human suffering today is arguably Yemen, which the United Nations calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. As we celebrate the new year, Yemeni children like Abdo are dying of hunger.
Yemen’s suffering is complicated. Always poor, the country has been shattered by a war and blockade by Saudi Arabia, with backing from the United States under both the Obama and Trump administrations. (Obama officials have acknowledged, not as candidly as they should, that this was a mistake.) Misrule by the Houthi faction, backed by Iran, has compounded the suffering, as have both cholera and the coronavirus — and donor countries are focused on their own problems and averting their eyes.
So Abdo died.
If you simply look at coronavirus numbers, you might think that poor countries had dodged a bullet. Developing countries have generally avoided high mortality from Covid-19, particularly in Africa.
But that may be changing with a tide of new infections, and in any case the indirect effects have been devastating, so that a pandemic of a coronavirus has been followed by pandemics of hunger, disease and illiteracy. Lockdowns meant that casual laborers had no income, and tuberculosis patients couldn’t get medicine. Campaigns to battle malaria, polio, AIDS and vitamin A deficiency were left in disarray.
The repercussions are endless. The United Nations warns that poverty and disruptions from the pandemic may push 13 million additional girls into child marriages. Disrupted campaigns against female genital mutilation may result in two million more girls enduring genital cutting, the U.N. said, while reduced access to contraception may lead to 15 million unintended pregnancies. The World Bank says an additional 72 million children may be pushed into illiteracy.
“We are increasingly talking about a lost generation, whose potential may be permanently quashed by this pandemic,” said Angeline Murimirwa of Camfed, which supports girls’ education in sub-Saharan Africa.
An expert panel crunched the numbers and estimated that under even a “moderate” scenario of what lies ahead, an additional 168,000 children will die from malnutrition because of the consequences of the coronavirus. Think about that: Abdo times 168,000.
Many others will survive, but with lifelong intellectual impairment, or in some cases permanent blindness, caused by deprivation in 2020 and 2021. This toll is worsened because of indifference in the rich world.
“The magnitude of the problem is an outrage, but it is even more outrageous that there are powerful, proven solutions that are not being delivered at scale,” said Shawn Baker, the chief nutritionist at the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Some poor countries will be able to vaccinate at most one-fifth of their populations in 2021, suggesting that the pandemic will continue to ping around the globe and smother poor countries. Partly that’s because the United States and other rich countries, at the behest of the pharmaceutical company lobby, refuse to waive patent protections to allow poor countries access to cheaper vaccines.
Gayle Smith of the One Campaign calls for three kinds of measures to help: greater efforts to distribute the vaccine globally, debt relief and assistance from wealthy countries.
The paradox is that 2020 may still be one of the five best years in human history, by such measures as the share of children dying or the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. If the world moves aggressively to address the crisis, the year could be remembered as a blip. But the nightmare is a prolonged crisis in poor countries and a turning point — on our watch — that ends the march of progress for humanity.

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