The Impact of COVID-19 on the Global Struggle for Freedom

Freedom House

Created 10/16/2020

Analysis, Evaluation Reports


Democracy under Lockdown: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Global Struggle for Freedom

The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled a crisis for democracy around the world. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries. Governments have responded by engaging in abuses of power, silencing their critics, and weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very systems of accountability needed to protect public health.

This is the conclusion of new Freedom House research on the impact of COVID-19 on democracy and human rights, produced in partnership with the survey firm GQR. Based on a survey of 398 journalists, civil society workers, activists, and other experts as well as research on 192 countries by Freedom House’s global network of analysts, this report is the first of its kind and the most in-depth effort to date to examine the condition of democracy during the pandemic (see full methodology).

The research strongly supports the hypothesis that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the 14 years of consecutive decline in freedom. Not only has democracy weakened in 80 countries, but the problem is particularly acute in struggling democracies and highly repressive states—in other words, settings that already had weak safeguards against abuse of power are suffering the most. The findings illustrate the breadth and depth of the assault on democracy. As one respondent on Cambodia put it, “The government [took] coronavirus as the opportunity to demolish democratic space.”

Sri Lanka’s experience illustrates the global trends. The government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa accelerated its authoritarian agenda over the past six months, stepping up efforts to control independent reporting and unfavorable speech by ordering the arrest of anyone who criticizes or contradicts the official line on the coronavirus. Early elections were called but, as the outbreak accelerated, were postponed, leaving the national legislature out of session beyond the constitutional deadline and weakening checks on executive power. Health concerns were also exploited by authorities as a pretext for human rights abuses, especially against the minority Muslim population.

Read the full report 

The impact of COVID-19 on the global struggle for freedom

Policy Recommendations: COVID-19 and the Global Struggle for Freedom

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a grave threat to public health. At the same time, measures adopted to combat it can have harmful, discriminatory effects, inflicted both intentionally and unwittingly. Restrictive emergency measures can also be extended and repurposed after the pandemic and associated health risks begin to recede. 

The democracy and human rights experts surveyed for this report—including journalists, civil society members, and academics working in over 100 countries—were asked to identify needs that arose during the course of their work as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. They were also asked how the international community can help support democracy and human rights during the pandemic. The following recommendations include their input.

Freedom House calls on governments, civil society organizations, and donors to protect political rights and civil liberties during and after the pandemic by following these recommendations.

1. Ensure that emergency measures are accountable, proportionate, and time-restricted. 

Emergency restrictions should be clearly communicated, enacted in a transparent manner, well grounded in law, necessary to serve a legitimate purpose, and proportionate to the threat. Emergency restrictions affecting basic rights, including freedoms of assembly, association, or internal movement, should be limited in duration, subject to independent oversight, and imposed and extended based only on transparent criteria. Individuals should have the opportunity to seek remedies and compensation for any unnecessary or disproportionate rights violations committed during the crisis.

2. Provide technical support and training for online work.

Assistance with moving work online was the most frequently identified need cited by the democracy and human rights experts surveyed for this report. Civil society organizations and activists should collaborate on local and global levels to identify best practices for remote work and develop associated trainings, and governments and donors should help fund these efforts. Specific needs identified include training in the use of communications platforms, including to conduct and supplement remote seminars and conferences; training on effectively sharing and promoting work online; and both technical advisers and software to strengthen digital security and improve digital hygiene practices. Respondents also highlighted a need for computers and other equipment, and a need to improve, or even introduce, internet access in many areas.

3. Ensure that free and independent media can thrive, and people have access to fact-based information.

A free press, and ensuring freedom of expression and access to information, is critical during times of emergency. Support for media—including financial assistance, technical support, skills training, and mentoring—was another frequently identified need of survey respondents. Independent media outlets and freelance journalists already face enormous obstacles in many countries, leaving a scarcity of timely, accurate, and fact-based reporting. During the pandemic and accompanying economic crisis, financial support is imperative if journalists are to continue their daily work, including disseminating fact-based information and data about COVID-19 infections and treatments, and countering mis- and disinformation. Governments should deliver clear, accurate, and up-to-date information about the virus, and officials should not endorse speculation or falsehoods. Governments and internet service providers should make every effort to support and maintain reliable access to the internet. Criminal penalties for distributing false information are disproportionate and prone to arbitrary application and abuse. In the United States, the proposed Universal Press Freedom Act would prioritize the promotion of press freedom by appointing an ambassador-at-large to coordinate US foreign policy engagement on global press freedom issues.

4. Support free and fair elections that respect public health. 

Every step should be taken to protect the administration of free and fair elections during the pandemic. Voter-registration rules and polling-station procedures should be adjusted in order to safeguard public health. Opportunities for socially distanced voting should be provided through measures such as early voting, vote-by-mail, or other remote voting procedures where their integrity can be ensured. Campaigns should pursue alternative mechanisms for voter outreach—such as online rallies and contacting with voters via text message—when large public gatherings are not advisable. Election officials should identify travel-related and other challenges that could hamper the work of independent election observers, and implement measures to ensure their presence at the polls. When safe and secure elections cannot be held as planned, changes should be made with buy-in from a range of political and civic stakeholders, and voting should be rescheduled promptly, with systematic measures put in place to ensure that polls are held in a timely manner.

5. Provide emergency funding that allows democracy and human rights organizations to continue daily work. 

Many survey respondents said stopgap funding was urgently needed if civic organizations and activists were to continue their day-to-day work in the absence of their usual revenue streams. Democracy and governance projects are all the more urgent while undemocratic rulers are using the pandemic as a pretext to further restrict rights. Civil society groups are essential in efforts to address restrictions on fundamental rights, advance necessary electoral and judicial reforms, and counter intensifying political polarization. Democratic governments and private donors should ensure that civil society groups—particularly those operating in restrictive environments—have the funding necessary to continue their critical work strengthening democracy and governance and protecting human rights. In the United States, the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act (S.3819/H.R.6986) should be passed without delay. If enacted, it would, among other things, provide funding for programs that strengthen democratic institutions; support civil society groups and human rights defenders; and bolster human rights, including press freedom.

6. Identify human rights abuses, condemn them when they occur and hold perpetrators to account. 

Survey respondents called on democratic governments and other advocates to monitor for and forcefully condemn abuses when they occur, and to ensure abuses do not go unnoticed despite the pandemic. Respondents highlighted the need for special attention to groups that may face heightened vulnerabilities during the pandemic, including women; LGBT+ people; and members of ethnic, racial, religious, and other marginalized groups. Efforts should be made to ensure that these communities have equal access to essential services and receive equal treatment under the law. Scapegoating certain groups as the purported cause of the health crisis, and encouraging or condoning intercommunal tensions and rights abuses, are grave violations for which perpetrators must be held accountable. Clear government messaging should denounce discriminatory practices or violence perpetrated against marginalized communities. Visa bans and asset freezes, such as those provided for in the Global Magnitsky laws in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and the Baltic States, should be imposed on entities and individuals, involved in human rights abuses, including government officials. The Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act (S.3819/H.R.6986) currently pending before the US Congress would require the Secretary of State and Administrator of USAID to develop a strategic plan for how to address global human rights violations that occur during the pandemic, and would direct the US government to consider gross violations of human rights when determining whether a foreign government is eligible to receive security sector assistance

7. Combat corruption in pandemic response efforts. 

Foreign governments, international institutions, and private donors have provided tens of million dollars to governments and local aid groups around the world to help address COVID-19. However, kleptocrats and other corrupt actors have used the opportunity to enrich themselves. This betrayal of public trust contributes directly to an increased coronavirus death toll by diverting resources away from public health initiatives. Survey respondents called on government officials, activists, civil society groups, and donors to ensure that coronavirus relief funding is used as intended and does not end up lining the pockets of authoritarian leaders, bolstering their staying power and enabling them to further restrict fundamental rights. Some respondents encouraged donors to link international aid, grants, and loans to basic benchmarks reflecting the recipient government’s commitment to democratic processes and the protection of human rights. Training for civil society in monitoring and documenting financial and other abuses, as well as international condemnation and targeted sanctions for abusers, are essential if corruption is to be rooted out. Corrupt officials should be held accountable for their actions through targeted sanctions such as the Global Magnitsky laws. Democracies should limit opportunities for the laundering of stolen funds through international financial markets. Corrupt actors routinely funnel stolen funds through international financial markets, laundered via seemingly legitimate purchases in democratic nations. Transparency laws should be updated if necessary to ensure that accurate identifying information about purchasers and their funding sources is available. In the United States, lawmakers should advance proposed measures like the Corporate Transparency Act (H.R. 2513) and the similar ILLICIT CASH Act (S. 2563), which would prohibit corrupt actors from hiding behind shell corporations by requiring the disclosure of true, beneficial owners.

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