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Freedom House: Pandemic deepens crisis for democracy globally

COVID-19. (NIAID-RML/Zuma Press/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened a crisis for democracy across the world, providing for governments to disrupt elections, clamp down on critics and the press, and undermine the accountability needed to protect human rights as well as public health, Freedom House said on October 2.

Since the pandemic began, the state of democracy and human rights has worsened in 80 countries, according to Democracy Under Lockdown, a new report produced by the U.S.-based democracy monitor in partnership with survey firm GQR.

Experts surveyed in the report said that a particularly sharp deterioration was observed in struggling democracies and highly repressive states.

In Azerbaijan, “the government has used the pretext of breaking quarantine to crack down on opposition political activists,” it noted.

In Kazakhstan, “there is an increase in the persecution of civic activists and political opposition for expressing their critical opinions on social media or disseminating information about human rights violations, including through the initiation of criminal cases.”

The report said that abuses of power during the pandemic have had a disproportionate impact on communities that were already marginalized.

In Bulgaria, Romany neighborhoods were placed under harsher movement restrictions than areas where Roma did not constitute a majority. In Serbia, one respondent said, “migrants were portrayed as possible carriers of the virus.”

In a gloomy prediction, more than 60 percent of the respondents said they expect that the pandemic’s impact on political rights and civil liberties in their countries of focus would be mostly negative for the next three to five years.

The experts identified four acute problems during the COVID-19 pandemic: lack of government transparency and information on the coronavirus, corruption, insufficient protections for vulnerable populations, and abuse of power by governments.

The report noted that activists, journalists, and citizens have been working aggressively to overcome the obstacles. They are trying to push back against government abuses in new ways, often using online platforms to engage with audiences and form new partnerships.

Unprecedented mass protests in Belarus represent a powerful example of pushback in a country where freedom of assembly has long been severely restricted.

Large nationwide rallies against Alyaksandr Lukashenka erupted in August following his claim of victory in a presidential vote marred by repression of opposition figures and allegations of widespread fraud.

Resistance against Lukashenka, the report said, was sparked at least in part by his denial of the pandemic, which contributed to a deadly outbreak of the virus. Thousands of protesters have been detained, and many have been subjected to brutality by security forces, including torture.

With Russian President Vladimir Putin helping to prop up Lukashenka, Freedom House said that the international community should support protesters’ demands for government accountability and democratic change.

In many countries, the pandemic has had an impact on elections as well. In the United States, election officials across the country appear ill-prepared for the November 3 election, given increased demand for mail voting, possible staffing shortfalls, and last-minute changes to electoral rules.

“The Trump administration has created a fog of misinformation around the pandemic, regularly making false or misleading statements that put lives at risk and undercut the broader government response,” the report said.

In Hong Kong, the government used the pandemic as an excuse to delay legislative elections by one year, in a move “widely seen as part of a broader effort by Beijing to cement its elimination of Hong Kong’s remaining freedom and autonomy,” it said.

The report highlighted that although protests were restricted by the pandemic, they could not be stopped.

“Though 158 countries have had new restrictions placed on protests, a significant protest has taken place in at least 90 countries since the outbreak began,” it said.

Freedom House conducted its research from January to September 2020. The work included an online survey by GQR, conducted from July 29 to August 15, in which 398 experts reported on the state of democracy in 105 countries and territories.

In addition, Freedom House consulted its global network of analysts, bringing the total number of countries examined to 192.