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COVID a cover for repression – human rights report

2 March 20210 comments

More than 80 governments have used the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to silence critics and adopt new repressive laws criminalising or stifling free speech, according to a new report from the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The report says governments have committed thousands of abuses in several key areas.

Firstly, security forces or state officials have assaulted journalists or bloggers reporting on COVID-19 policies, as well as protesters, opposition activists and lawyers, the report says.

“Security forces or government officials in at least 18 countries have physically assaulted journalists or bloggers for reporting on Covid-19 policies as well as protesters, political opponents, or lawyers. In one country, security forces killed protesters,” it says.

Governments have also used COVID laws and measures to arbitrarily arrest, detain, prosecute, and fine or imprison critics of government responses to the emergency, or have used them to target critics of policies unrelated to the pandemic, HRW says.

“At least 51 governments around the world have used COVID-19-related public health measures or laws pre-dating the pandemic to arbitrarily arrest, detain, prosecute or fine people expressing opposition to authorities’ responses to the pandemic or other government policies unrelated to COVID-19.”

The report says governments have used multiple tools to censor media and social media coverage of the pandemic. These include adopting laws and other measures that criminalize spreading misinformation on public health.

“At least 52 national governments have prevented Covid-19 related reporting by passing vague or overbroad new laws criminalizing categories of media coverage that they deem undesirable. Some have also threatened media critics to not contradict the authorities’ responses, threatened or dismissed healthcare staff for criticizing responses to the pandemic, blocked specific reports or shut down media outlets,” the report says.

It says Governments have also suspended or restricted the right to request and receive public health information or limited press accreditation for COVID-19-related press briefings to pro-state media outlets.

“At least eight governments have suspended or restricted the right to request and receive public health information or limited press accreditation for COVID-19 related press briefings to pro-state media outlets,” the report says.

HRW says authorities have arbitrarily banned or broken up COVID-19-related protests or used social distancing measures to end other protests critical of government policies unrelated to the coronavirus.

“Authorities in at least ten countries have arbitrarily banned or broken up protests against various government responses to Covid-19, or have used Covid-19-related regulations to end protests and gatherings unrelated to the coronavirus by opposition groups or other critics,” the report says.

The report says some of the most repressive countries were China, India, Cambodia, Egypt, Hungary, Iran, Turkey        and Russia.

China was accused in the report of arbitrary arrests, detention and prosecution. It called on China to “release detained citizen journalists and outspoken critics, and end the new crackdown on free expression online since the start of COVID-19 outbreak”.

“Under the guise of fighting the novel coronavirus, authorities in China have escalated suppression online by blocking independent reporting, information sharing, and critical comments on government responses. Aggressive cyber policing and invasive online surveillance have played a key role in the initial government cover-up of the outbreak and hampering vital information flow, contributing to significant delay of emergency responses and loss of life,” it says. 

Russia was accused of preventing health workers from talking about the crisis, hospital overcrowding and shortages of person protective equipment.

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