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Protecting Democracy during a Global Pandemic

Governments around the world are using COVID-19 as an excuse to expand their power and degrade personal freedom.
March 26, 2020
Protecting Democracy during a Global Pandemic
(Digital collage by Hannah Yoest / photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

At a time when global democracy was already in retreat, some leaders are clearly exploiting the coronavirus crisis for political gain. While certain restrictions on fundamental freedoms may be essential to curb the spread of the coronavirus, any such measure must be transparent, implemented with democratic oversight, and necessary and proportionate to achieving a legitimate aim.

But citing the COVID-19 pandemic, governments around the world are increasing censorship, enhancing surveillance, and disrupting elections with little regard for human rights or democratic standards.

Restricting the free flow of information undermines efforts to combat the virus while also allowing official narratives to go unchallenged. Authorities in China have muzzled independent activists, journalists, and ordinary citizens. CitizenLab found evidence that 516 keywords were being censored on the popular messaging platform WeChat, including both criticism of the Chinese Communist Party and “neutral references to government policies on handling the epidemic.” Also censored were references to Dr. Li Wenliang, who was one of the first to initially blow the whistle about COVID-19 before becoming a victim of the disease himself.

Beijing has also attempted to prevent independent reporting on the country’s COVID-19 response from reaching the outside world. Chinese authorities announced on March 17 that reporters from the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post would be expelled from the country.

On the same day, officials in Egypt revoked the credentials of a Guardian journalist who reported on estimates of the virus’s spread in the country that were at odds with government statistics, and denounced a New York Times reporter for tweeting the same information.

Authorities in these and other countries have pursued criminal or civil cases against journalists, activists, and ordinary people for their online speech. Officials in Thailand targeted whistle-blowers for sharing information about shortages of medical supplies and related corruption, while Turkish authorities have detained at least 19 people for “provocative and unfounded” posts about the pandemic.

Unfortunately, cynical manipulation of public information isn’t unique to authoritarian countries. Democracies also suffer when the free flow of information is curtailed. In the U.S., officials have expressed concern that the Trump administration’s decision to classify dozens of coronavirus-related meetings may have impacted its response to the outbreak.

Government persecution of those who share politically inconvenient information encourages self-censorship, even among those with vital information to offer. Governments that silence criticism or opt for non-transparency are effectively protecting their own political standing at the expense of public health and safety. For some governments, this may be simply the continuation of old patterns. But for others, it’s a worrying trend that may leave disastrous precedents once the pandemic crisis recedes.

Governments across the democratic spectrum have expanded their surveillance capabilities during the crisis, often going beyond what is required for public health. There is a real risk that strengthened surveillance powers will outlive the coronavirus outbreak and be used for illegitimate aims.

On the unfree end of the spectrum, in China, the Alipay Health Code application determines users’ “health status” and assigns a crude, color-coded designation to dictate whether they can move freely or not. The mobile app appears to share users’ location with police automatically. Similarly, the Close Contact Detector app alerts people when they may have been exposed to the virus based on their proximity to other app users who may be infected. It’s easy to see how these technologies, which combine real-time location tracking with intimate personal information, could be repurposed to suppress dissent and otherwise enhance China’s digital authoritarianism. It’s hard to imagine a scenario in which they wouldn’t be.

But it’s not just full blown authoritarian countries like China that are moving in this direction. Israel’s caretaker government bypassed the legislature to allow the internal security service and police to tap into a secretly obtained cache of smartphone geolocation data. Under a previously undisclosed legal framework, authorities can access this data without a court order, and the emergency powers can be extended indefinitely. This lack of independent could lead to abuses – an especially troubling possibility in a country experiencing democratic backsliding.

NSO Group, an Israeli spyware company with an alarming human rights record, claims to have created a tool to track the contagion, which it could market to governments around the world. It’s worth recalling that NSO’s Pegasus spyware software was strongly suspected to have been deployed to access murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s communications.

In what would be an unprecedented expansion in commercial and governmental information sharing, U.S. authorities have reportedly spoken with major social media companies about accessing user location data to glean information about social distancing efforts and the virus’s spread.

Governments should not exploit a public health crisis to usher in draconian surveillance measures. Any new monitoring efforts should be scientifically necessary and proportionate to curtailing the outbreak, limited in duration, and subject to independent oversight. If personal information collected for public health reasons were improperly used for other commercial or governmental purposes, it would not just violate fundamental rights. It would also seriously damage public trust and harm future efforts to fight disease.

In repressive countries where elections are nearly meaningless, governments have added COVID-19 to their list of pretexts for cracking down on the opposition. Police in Azerbaijan, for instance, reportedly closed an office of the opposition party D18 for hosting a mass gathering, even though there were only four people on the premises.

But even governments operating in good faith are quickly realizing that elections and other political activities pose a significant threat to social distancing efforts. Numerous democracies, including France and the United Kingdom, have already postponed elections, and several U.S. states have delayed their primary contests.

Democratic countries should not take these decisions lightly, as their actions today will set a benchmark for themselves and for other nations facing potential electoral disruptions in the future. Measures to avoid postponement can include adjusting registration requirements, ensuring that any polling stations that need to remain open are adequately resourced and take the necessary safety precautions, and providing opportunities for early and remote voting. Delaying elections should be a last resort and limited to instances in which independent experts can confirm that it’s necessary and proportionate.

Any moves to adjust electoral plans during the pandemic should be transparent and include consultation with political parties, electoral commissions, and civil society. Indefinite, extremely lengthy, or repeated postponements are warning signs that the delay may be more than a necessary public health measure.

Now more than ever, people everywhere need democratic governance and respect for human rights. Access to information, independent journalism, and privacy protections are all important components of the fight against COVID-19, and free and fair elections are irreplaceable as a means of holding officials accountable for their performance.

Democratic leaders, human rights experts, and public health professionals should be mindful of some governments’ propensity to misuse emergencies for political gain. Working together, they should clearly indicate when restrictions are not scientifically valid, and push back against excessive responses across the democratic spectrum.

Humanity will recover from this pandemic. But we need to act promptly to ensure that our democratic freedoms survive the crisis as well.

Allie Funk and Isabel Linzer

Allie Funk is a research analyst at Freedom House. Isabel Linzer is a research associate at Freedom House.