Keeping Democracy Healthy during a Pandemic

A New Newsletter on Protecting Rights during COVID-19


By Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research

It’s rough out there. But we’re in this together, to help each other make sense of it. This newsletter is a way for us to share information about the pandemic’s implications for democracy, and ways that all of us can support rights even in a time of crisis. Every week we’ll share information about what we’re watching around the world, and original analysis about key issues in protecting democracy.

We’re showing you this week’s newsletter as a preview, but if you want to keep receiving it, please make sure to subscribe here. 

We start this week with Freedom House’s principles for how to protect civil and political rights in a pandemic. They are grounded in international human rights law. TL;DR—restrictions should be transparent, legitimate, necessary, proportionate, and nondiscriminatory.

You can see similar principles in the statements from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, a group of international monitors for freedom of expression, and the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. As our Freedom House President Michael J. Abramowitz said, “Democracy should not and need not be sacrificed in the name of public health.”

To understand how the pandemic is already affecting rights around the world, here are three great pieces by my colleagues at Freedom House about its implications for democracy. In the Washington Post, Allie Funk and Isabel Linzer explained how the threat could lead to a global backslide in freedom. They followed this up with a longer piece in The Bulwark.  

Lastly, in a new analysis on our website, Sarah Repucci discusses the negative impact of postponing elections, and explains steps democracies can take right now to avoid this last resort.

Around the World:
A rush to crack down on free speech

This week, we’re pointing out restrictions on freedom of expression that have already been enacted in response the COVID-19 crisis, by democracies and repressive governments alike.

  • South Africa passed regulations that criminalized content intended to deceive a person about the pandemic, or the government’s response to it.
  • Hungary changed its criminal code to include harsh penalties for spreading “false information,” and passed a state-of-emergency law that gives the government indefinite powers to rule by decree.
  • Thailand also announced emergency powers that include broad criminal prohibitions on coronavirus information deemed false, which might “instigate fear,” or is “intentionally distorted to mislead the public.”
  • Officials in Egypt revoked the credentials of a Guardian journalist who reported on estimates of the virus’s spread in the country that were at odds with government statistics, and denounced a New York Times reporter for tweeting the same information.
  • In Turkey, authorities have detained at least 410 people for “provocative” posts about the pandemic.
  • In Venezuela, the Special Action Forces of the national police temporarily detained and interrogated a freelance journalist and members of his family. Authorities demanded information about the journalist’s sources for his COVID-19 coverage. 

Chinese doctor and whistleblower Li Wenliang

covid newsletter li wenliang china coronavirus democracy pandemic
Photo Credit: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP via Getty Images.

Even as the pandemic claims lives, and as some authorities enact disproportionate, dangerous restrictions in response to it, the threats posed by COVID-19 are also prompting inspirational acts of bravery.

This week we highlight Li Wenliang, the Chinese doctor in Wuhan who warned his colleagues about the novel coronavirus in late December. For his efforts, Chinese security forces visited his house and reprimanded him for “spreading rumors,” effectively forcing him into silence. Wenliang died in early February after contracting the virus himself, and is now recognized globally for his bravery and sacrifice. Wenliang’s death also prompted an outcry on Chinese social media platforms, where the hashtag “WeWantFreeSpeech” briefly overcame the authorities’ harsh censorship regime.



covid-19 france voting ballots

The Coronavirus Takes Aim at Electoral Democracy

Voting has been postponed in many locations, but there are ways to minimize the damage.


Again, in these difficult times, we’d like to continue bringing you important information about COVID-19’s implications for democracy, and how we can defend fundamental rights during times of crisis. If you’d like more of Freedom House’s new weekly newsletter, please subscribe here.