Turkey, Belarus, and Transnational Repression

This 12th edition of Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic features new pieces on freedom of expression in Turkey, Belarus’s presidential election, and authoritarian influence beyond borders.

By Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research

Welcome back to Freedom House’s newsletter on the novel coronavirus and the crisis, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic. The second wave is here in the United States—or maybe the first one never ended. Wear a mask, everyone.

Special Features:

We start this issue off with two more pieces from our Europe and Eurasia team. In Balkan Insight, Freedom House’s senior program officer Gina Lentine and journalist Didem Tali explore how the pandemic is affecting freedom of expression in Turkey. As in other places, the pandemic has exacerbated the “preexisting condition” of censorship and retribution for speech in the country. Their op-ed is in part based on a survey Freedom House conducted in Turkey prior to the pandemic on attitudes toward freedom of expression: you can find the PDF here.

Turkey pandemic tramway train car people wear masks

In the second piece, Senior Program Manager Sofya Orlosky and Vytis Jurkonis, project director for Freedom House’s Vilnius office, examine the upcoming presidential election in Belarus, where a fed-up populace is defying strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Despite a relentless crackdown in which three opposition candidates were banned from running in the election and some 900 others were jailed, Belarusian people are rising up to demand change. The election was always going to be a test for Lukashenka, but civil society has stepped into the gap created by the pandemic, proving that even when the state fails, Belarusian society will support itself. Now more than ever, it is a time for international solidarity with the people of Belarus as they demand the right to choose their own leaders.

Lastly, if you haven’t already, check out the July issue of our China Media Bulletin, written by Freedom House’s senior research analyst for China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, Sarah Cook. In this month’s CMB, Sarah highlights the extent of China’s extraterritorial reach, especially through the new National Security Law promulgated to cover Hong Kong. China’s willingness to move quickly against Hong Kong has raised again the issue of whether the pandemic is providing a pretext under which leaders can attack democracies and democratic movements.          

By the way, if you’re interested in the problem of authoritarian states extending their influence around the world, including over their own diasporas and exiles, we have a new essay collection on “transnational repression.” The range of tactics is broad, and the consequences for affected communities are severe. 

Around the World

Now for more stories we are watching around the world on how the pandemic is affecting democracy and human rights:

  • Sri Lankans began voting by post July 13, ahead of the August 5 general election that had been postponed from April. COVID-19 cases have escalated, though, and the opposition has urged the vote to be pushed back again. But the country has been without a parliament for nearly five months, enabling President Rajapaksa to assert his authoritarian tendencies, with military support.
  • In Serbia, antigovernment protests over the response to COVID-19 have proliferated. Grievances over a renewed lockdown stem in part from the decision to proceed with a general election in May, as well as from suspicions that the government artificially lowered COVID-19 case statistics in order to allow the elections to proceed, to the benefit of the ruling party.
  • United States hospitals were told by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to redirect their COVID-19 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to a centralized database accessible by HHS and the White House’s coronavirus task force. Critics worry that the Trump administration will be less transparent than the CDC, and could even politicize the figures.
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tested positive for the coronavirus on July 15. Bolsonaro has continued to tout an antimalaria drug as effective treatment, both reflecting and helping to fuel the global proliferation of disinformation and misinformation about the pandemic.
  • In a reminder that prisoners and detainees are at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19, Egyptian journalist Mohamed Monir died from the virus. He had been arrested in June on terrorism and “false news” charges; recent articles by Monir had denounced the government’s response to the pandemic. Honduran journalist David Romero Ellner also died over the weekend after contracting COVID-19 in prison. He had been convicted of defamation and was serving a 10-year sentence.
  • The New York Times reported that Chinese companies are producing personal protective equipment for both domestic and international consumers “using Uighur labor [and that of other ethnic minorities] through a contentious government-sponsored program that experts say often puts people to work against their will.”
  • Pakistan has converted a surveillance system built by the country’s military intelligence agency to combat terrorism, into a contact-tracing platform. The lack of transparency around the “track-and-trace” initiative, along with the emergence of other surveillance measures, has rights groups concerned that the pandemic is being used as a pretext to monitor Pakistani citizens.
  • Last month, Tanzania announced that the country had zero coronavirus cases, but members of the opposition have since claimed there to be up to 20,000. Residents have alleged seeing burials take place at night, and people speaking up about the pandemic have reportedly been arrested.

That’s all for this week. Stay safe, and stay free.

For Freedom House’s continuing analysis of the COVID-19 crisis, with stories from around the world about how states are responding, please subscribe to Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic here.