Masking Up but Not Shutting Up: Defending Freedom of Speech during a Pandemic

Shortly after the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, activists and journalists raised concerns about how governments’ response to the crisis might restrict freedom of expression and other civil liberties.[1] More than a year later, we have a better sense of how the pandemic response has limited press freedom and the flow of information in the world.

Some government regulations to stop Covid-19’s spread—such as mask requirements or social distancing measures—are reasonable and justifiable. Personal freedom is not the only value worth defending. Protecting the lives and health of people, especially vulnerable people, warrants certain restrictions.

However, many civil authorities have gone beyond reasonable restrictions to measures such as arresting and imprisoning journalists and others for their statements or shutting down media outlets and other platforms. Such restrictions on free speech sometimes have been questionably justified as necessary to prevent the spread of false information about the pandemic.

These issues’ significance extends far beyond both the current crisis and journalists’ work. Governments with the power to intimidate people or prevent information from being shared can use such power outside public health crises to silence activists or critics, including those working to defend life. Peace, pro-life, and social justice activists are all vulnerable to such power’s abuse. Even public health can suffer because of restrictions on free expression: governments can shut down criticisms of inadequate responses to crises.

Patterns of Repression

Human Rights Watch, in a February 2021 report, says that 51 governments have arrested, detained, or prosecuted thousands of people for criticizing the government response to the pandemic or other government policies. Covid-19-related public health measures have sometimes been invoked as reasons for this repression.[2] The Committee to Protect Journalists estimated that 274 journalists had been jailed as of December 1, 2020—a new high since the 2016 peak of 272.[3]

Different countries offer various examples of repression. In Russia, government officials prosecuted almost 200 journalists, activists, politicians and others between March and June 2020. Their alleged crime was spreading false information about Covid-19. The Chinese government reported in January 2021 that 17,000 people had been investigated the previous year for “fabricating and spreading Covid-19-releated false information online.”[4]

Indian authorities arrested at least 640 people, including teachers, bloggers, and others, in the spring of 2020 for supposedly publishing false information about Covid. Turkey carried out a similar campaign in 2020 against “provocative Coronavirus posts” on social media, detaining over 500 people. In Vietnam, officials required 650 Facebook users to remove pandemic-related posts and fined more than 160 of them.[5]

Human Rights Watch also notes that at least 12 countries have shut down, suspended, or otherwise interfered with newspapers, television stations, and social media accounts because of pandemic-related reports. In Malaysia, an Al Jazeera documentary on migrant workers’ plight during the pandemic was met with a police investigation that included questioning of journalists, a raid on Al Jazeera’s offices and two local television stations, confiscation of Al Jazeera computers, and refusal to renew two journalists’ visas. A migrant worker featured in the documentary was deported.[6]

Health workers have been among those targeted for repression. Nine medical staff in Egypt who complained about a lack of protective medical equipment and Covid testing were detained on charges including “spreading fake news” and “misusing social media.” In May 2020, Dr. Ibrahim Bediwy warned about censorship in an online message that said “Any doctor in the current situation is not safe.” Bediwy was then arrested on terrorism charges and detained until January 2021.[7]

Even wealth is not necessarily protection against repressive measures. Ren Zhiqiang, a prominent retired Chinese businessman, harshly criticized the government’s pandemic response. He was then detained by authorities, expelled from the Communist Party, and, in September 2020, sentenced to 18 years in prison. The sentence was supposedly for various financial crimes but may well have been punishment for his public comments.[8]

Repression of speech sometimes has been violent or otherwise abusive. In India, police beat journalists in Hyderabad and Delhi in March 2020.[9] In April 2020, journalists in Haiti were attacked by unidentified men while investigating claims that the government’s National Identification Office was violating social distancing guidelines.[10] In Venezuela, police detained Iván Virgüez, a lawyer and human rights activist who had criticized the official pandemic response. While in police custody, Virgüez was kept handcuffed to a metal tube about two feet off the ground for two hours and denied use of a bathroom for over a day.[11]

Perhaps the most notable example of abusive repression of journalism is the case of Mohamed Monir in Egypt. Monir’s reporting included criticism of the government’s pandemic response. Whether as retaliation for such criticism or for other reasons, Monir was arrested in June 2020 and charged with joining a terrorist group, spreading false news, and misusing social media.[12] An older man with health problems, Monir spent over two weeks in detention and eventually died—of Covid-19.[13]

Defending Freedom of Speech

Given Covid-19’s terrible toll—more than 2.8 million deaths, as of this writing—proper public health regulations are essential.[14] However, justifiable concerns about Covid-19 should not be used to justify repressing dissent or criticism of civil authorities. Nor should concern about false information lead us to give government officials the right to decide which information is true or false and to enforce such decisions with harassment, fines, arrests, or imprisonment. Such policies are ripe for abuse and threaten all of us who wish to protect life and are willing to criticize those in power.

Human Rights Watch recommends some specific policy responses to recent repression. The United Nations Human Rights Council and other international organizations devoted to human rights should investigate countries’ record on free speech and other rights during the pandemic. The World Health Organization should issue clearer guidelines on what are appropriate and inappropriate restrictions during a health emergency.[15] Also, journalists and activists should all be on guard against pandemic-related restrictions outlasting the current crisis.

Gerry Simpson, Human Rights Watch’s associate crisis and conflict director, comments “Governments should counter Covid-19 by encouraging people to mask up, not shut up.” He adds, “Beating, detaining, prosecuting, and censoring peaceful critics violates many fundamental rights, including free speech, while doing nothing to stop the pandemic.”[16] Activists everywhere should set the example of being safe while always continuing to speak out.

A version of this essay originally appeared on the Consistent Life Network blog.

Notes

[1] See “Sickness is the Health of the State? Civil Liberties and Conflict during a Pandemic.”

[2] Human Rights Watch, “Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse,” February 11, 2021, https://bit.ly/3cM1lac.

[3] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Attacks on the Press in 2020,” accessed April 4, 2021, https://bit.ly/3rIvETC.

[4] Human Rights Watch, “Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.; Associated Press, “Malaysia Police Raid Al Jazeera’s Office, Seize Computers,” August 4, 2020, https://abcn.ws/31M7Gwg.

[7] Human Rights Watch, “Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse.”

[8] Chris Buckley, “China’s ‘Big Cannon’ Blasted Xi. Now He’s Been Jailed for 18 Years,” New York Times, September 22, 2020, https://nyti.ms/3cKmHot.

[9] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Journalists Assaulted by Police amid Coronavirus Lockdown in India,” March 24, 2020, https://bit.ly/3cPcCH6; Katherine Jacobsen, “Amid COVID-19, the Prognosis for Press Freedom is Dim. Here Are 10 Symptoms to Track,” Committee to Protect Journalists, accessed April 4, 2021, https://bit.ly/2PBKCxz.

[10] Jacobsen, “Amid COVID-19, the Prognosis for Press Freedom is Dim.”

[11] Human Rights Watch, “Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse.”

[12] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Egyptian Journalist Mohamed Monir Detained, Charged with Spreading False News,” June 15, 2020, https://bit.ly/3sVl3Gs.

[13] Committee to Protect Journalists, “Egyptian Journalist Mohamed Monir Dies after Contracting COVID-19 in Pretrial Detention,” July 13, 2020, https://bit.ly/3wpuZK9.

[14] World Health Organization, “WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard,” accessed April 4, 2021, https://covid19.who.int/.

[15] Human Rights Watch, “Covid-19 Triggers Wave of Free Speech Abuse.”

[16] Ibid.

© 2021 John Whitehead. All rights reserved.

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