Press release October 2, 2020
NEW REPORT: Democracy under Lockdown - The Impact of COVID-19 on Global Freedom
The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened a crisis for democracy around the world, providing cover for governments to disrupt elections, silence critics and the press, and undermine the accountability needed to protect human rights as well as public health, according to Democracy under Lockdown, a new Freedom House report produced in partnership with the survey firm GQR.
Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the condition of democracy and human rights has worsened in 80 countries, with particularly sharp deterioration in struggling democracies and highly repressive states, according to the experts surveyed by the project. More than 60 percent of the respondents predicted 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.
“What began as a worldwide health crisis has become part of the global crisis for democracy,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Governments in every part of the world have abused their powers in the name of public health, seizing the opportunity to undermine democracy and human rights.”
“The new COVID-era laws and practices will be hard to reverse,” said Sarah Repucci, vice president for research and analysis at Freedom House and a coauthor of the report. “The harm to fundamental human rights will last long beyond the pandemic.”
The country experts surveyed as part of the project identified four problems as the most acute during the COVID-19 pandemic: lack of government transparency and information on the coronavirus, corruption, lack of protection for vulnerable populations, and government abuses of power.
The pandemic is accelerating a global decline in freedom of expression. Restrictions on the news media as part of the response to COVID-19 occurred in at least 91 countries. Governments enacted new legislation against spreading “fake news” about the virus. They also limited independent questioning at press conferences, suspended the printing of newspapers, and blocked websites.
This report is the most in-depth effort to date to examine the condition of democracy during the pandemic. 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, 2020, 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.
“Our survey found that governments’ responses to the pandemic are eroding the pillars of democracy around the world,” said Repucci. “The blatant obfuscation of facts by governments is always harmful, but it is especially egregious at a time when so many people’s lives are at stake.”
Authoritarian and democratically elected leaders alike have failed to be candid about the impact of the coronavirus. In the survey, 62 percent of the respondents said they distrust what they are hearing about the pandemic from the national government in their country of focus. Among the experts on countries that the annual Freedom House report Freedom in the World classifies as Not Free, 77 percent distrust such information, indicating that lack of transparency is most common in countries with weak protections against abuses of power.
Governments are also using the outbreak as a justification to grant themselves special powers beyond what is reasonably necessary to protect public health. They have exploited new emergency authority to interfere in the justice system, impose unprecedented restrictions on political opponents, and sideline crucial legislative functions.
As one respondent said of Turkey, “Coronavirus was used as an excuse for the already oppressive government to do things that it has long planned to do but had not been able to.”
Some governments have applied lockdown measures in an openly discriminatory manner or used marginalized populations as scapegoats. Muslims in India and Sri Lanka were accused of being “superspreaders,” while in Serbia, one respondent said, “migrants were portrayed as possible carriers of the virus.” In Kuwait, authorities imposed tighter restrictions on noncitizen neighborhoods.
At the same time, parliaments have been hamstrung by health restrictions and emergency laws, and at times they have been manipulated for political purposes. One respondent on Singapore noted that the most disturbing development has been the “passage of laws that curb freedom but claim to curb the virus.”
Government abuses are also affecting elections. Authorities delayed or otherwise disrupted national elections in nine countries, as well as a larger number of regional and local votes in other settings, between January and August 2020. Some of these election changes failed to meet democratic standards, either because new elections were not scheduled promptly or because officials set new dates without making adequate preparations for safe and secure voting.
The issue extends to the United States. Local election authorities across the country appear to be ill-prepared for nationwide balloting in November, given increased demand for voting by mail, likely staffing shortfalls, and last-minute changes to electoral rules—all related to the pandemic.
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 US administration unfortunately is not alone in its failure to be candid about the impact of the coronavirus,” said Sarah Repucci, vice president of research at Freedom House. “Leaders around the world who fear public condemnation for their handling of the crisis have diverted attention by scapegoating marginalized groups, attacking their critics, or downplaying the severity of the health situation.”
In Hong Kong, the government cited the pandemic as a reason to delay legislative elections by an entire year, but the move was widely seen as part of a broader effort by Beijing to cement its elimination of Hong Kong’s remaining freedom and autonomy.
The endurance of protest movements is a possible bright spot. Though 158 countries have placed new restrictions on demonstrations, significant protests have taken place in at least 90 countries since the outbreak began, the research shows.
“The persistence of public protests, under every type of regime, shows that citizens remain willing to challenge authorities, even as governments use the crisis to try to increase their own powers,” said Amy Slipowitz, research manager at Freedom House and a coauthor of the report. “The erosion of political rights and civil liberties began long before the pandemic, but people in every region of the world are clearly committed to reclaiming their freedom.”
Key findings and data points:
- Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries. The deterioration is particularly acute in struggling democracies and highly repressive states.
- 64 percent of experts agreed that the impact of COVID-19 on democracy and human rights in their country of focus will be mostly negative over the next three to five years.
- The four issues experts believe have been most impacted by COVID-19 are transparency of information on the pandemic, corruption, protection for vulnerable populations, and government abuse of power.
- At least 91 of the 192 countries under review (47 percent) experienced restrictions on the news media as part of the response to the coronavirus outbreak.
- Protests have been restricted, but not stopped, by the pandemic. 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.
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