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Global democracy is in crisis during the coronavirus pandemic, report finds

Posted October 2, 2020 5:34 a.m. EDT

— Democracy is in crisis worldwide as governments take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic to tighten controls and conduct human rights abuses, according to a new report by research institute Freedom House.

The report, released Thursday, identified 80 countries where freedoms have deteriorated, many of them nations with repressive or authoritarian governments like China and Cambodia, the report said.

"What began as a worldwide health crisis has become part of the global crisis for democracy," said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, which is funded by the US government. "Governments in every part of the world have abused their powers in the name of public health, seizing the opportunity to undermine democracy and human rights."

Between January and September, Freedom House and the survey firm GQR surveyed nearly 400 journalists, activists, civil servants and experts in 105 countries and territories. Freedom House also consulted international analysts, bringing the total number of countries covered in the report to 192.

The experts identified five major pillars of democracy that are now under threat: government transparency, freedom of press and speech, credible elections, checks against abuse of power, and protections for vulnerable groups.

"The new COVID-era laws and practices will be hard to reverse," said Sarah Repucci, one of the report's co-authors. "The harm to fundamental human rights will last long beyond the pandemic."

The five pillars under threat

Numerous world leaders have failed to be candid and transparent about the impact of the coronavirus, said the report -- prompting public distrust in the authorities and allowing misinformation to spread.

In the survey, 62% of respondents said they distrusted virus-related information from their national government. The issue of transparency can range from politicians like US President Donald Trump making unfounded or misleading statements, to companies and ministers engaging in active corruption, said the report.

Trump and first lady Melania Trump tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday. Their diagnoses came just hours after Trump's top aide Hope Hicks tested positive for the virus.

Freedom of press is under threat as well -- at least 91% of the countries examined have seen increased restrictions on the news media during the pandemic, according to the report. Journalists covering the crisis have been arrested, harassed, and stripped of press credentials; news outlets have been shut down and censored online.

Even ordinary citizens are facing limits on free speech. For instance, medical workers in Kyrgyzstan were forced to publicly apologize after speaking out about the problems they encountered, said one of the survey respondents. Another example is China, which has cracked down on anyone who shares "information that contradicts regime messaging," the report said.

A well-known example is Li Wenliang, a doctor in Wuhan, China, who tried to sound the alarm about the virus when it first emerged last December, before the public knew much about it. Soon after, he was targeted by police, and made to sign a statement acknowledging his "misdemeanor." He later tested positive for the virus, and died of it in February, sparking grief and fury across Chinese social media.

All the while, we're seeing a rise in government abuses of power. In Liberia, security forces carried out "brutal and corrupt enforcement of curfew orders," said a survey respondent. In Kazakhstan, there has been a reported uptick in political persecution during the pandemic. And in Cambodia, the administration has used the outbreak to crack down on political opposition, said one of the experts consulted.

These abuses of power and new pandemic restrictions disproportionately affect marginalized communities and minority groups. For instance, in India and Sri Lanka, Muslims were accused of being "superspreaders" and scapegoated for outbreaks, according to the report.

Muslims in India have reported being targeted in violent attacks, harassment, forced evictions and more instances of discrimination due to rising Islamophobia during the pandemic.

"As international attention remains focused on combating the coronavirus, governments and other actors have been able to escalate ongoing abuses against vulnerable groups with little scrutiny," said the report.

Finally, the pandemic has disrupted elections around the world, with experts accusing some authoritarian governments of leveraging the situation to their advantage. For instance, the semi-autonomous Chinese city of Hong Kong was set to hold its legislative elections in September. Instead, the government postponed the election for a year, citing the pandemic, and banned a number of pro-democracy candidates from running.

The controversial move came after a year-long anti-government, pro-democracy protest movement that culminated in China promulgating a sweeping national security law in June, which many say served a devastating blow to the city's freedoms.

Several other countries, including the US, Belarus, Sri Lanka and Burundi, have seen their elections potentially compromised due to the health crisis, the report added.

Calls to action

Freedom House urged governments and businesses worldwide to protect their democracies through a number of recommended actions.

For instance, it called on organizations and donors to support free and independent media, whether through financial assistance, skills training or technical support. It also recommended that governments provide additional funding for civil society groups and human rights organizations, whose services are more crucial than ever.

The report called on democratic governments to monitor and publicly condemn human rights abuses, particularly when they target vulnerable groups like women, LGBT people, and those who belong to racial or religious minorities. Governments can and should use visa bans and asset freezes to punish those involved with human rights abuses, including government officials, said the report.

"The crisis of democratic governance, having begun long before the pandemic, is likely to continue after the health crisis recedes, as the laws and norms being put in place now will be difficult to reverse," said the report.

But there is one bright spot, it added -- investigative journalism has pushed forward despite restrictions. Meanwhile, mass protests continue worldwide, even in repressive countries. Although 158 countries have imposed restrictions on demonstrations, at least 90 nations have seen significant protests since the pandemic began, according to Freedom House researchers.

"Even amid devastation and disruption, some have responded to the pandemic with hope and rejuvenation," said the report. "Democracy is suffering around the world, but the public's demand for it has not been extinguished."

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