Democracy during a Pandemic: Russia and Southern Africa

This seventh edition of Freedom House’s weekly newsletter, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic, features writing on the responses in Russia and Southern Africa.

By Nate Schenkkan, Director for Special Research

It’s Day 50-something of enforced social distancing here in New York City, and Issue Seven of Freedom House’s weekly newsletter on the novel coronavirus and the crisis, Keeping Democracy Healthy in a Pandemic. The flowers are blooming, and the curve is flattening. We hope it is wherever you are, too.

Special Features:

Last week we released our annual report on the state of democracy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, Nations in Transit. This report shows a stunning democratic breakdown: there are fewer democracies in the region than at any point since we started it in 1995. The Dispatch summarized our findings well.

Expanding on the findings, Research Analyst Michael Smeltzer writes about Russia’s reaction to the crisis, and how President Vladimir Putin has foisted responsibility onto regional governments. But after decades of weakening local governance in order to build his famous “power vertical,” Putin lacks strong local institutions that can manage the crisis.

And in our other feature this week, the chief of party of our Advancing Rights in Southern Africa Program, Tiseke Kasambala, explains the response to the crisis in Southern Africa, a region of 16 countries and nearly 350 million people. From Malawi to South Africa, the danger is that decades of government failures that have eroded trust between citizens and the state will result in abuses both through measures to contain the virus, and in ineffective responses.

South Africa coronavirus pandemic stay home
Streets in Cape Town are empty under the Stay at Home restrictions due to the coronavirus lockdown. Editorial credit: fivepointsix /

Probably the weirdest coronavirus election so far took place in Poland, where the government had been planning to hold presidential elections on May 10 despite a lack of mechanisms to protect voters or the vote. The bad news: the vote was technically held. The good news: there was zero percent turnout, as polling stations remained closed. The government said the vote would be ruled invalid by the Supreme Court after it was held, so it could be run again later. Of course, it’s also bad news when governments say what supposedly independent courts will do before they do it. Don’t feel bad if you’re confused.

In case you missed it, our Zselyke Csaky and Sarah Repucci explained in Foreign Policy why the debacle in Poland should be a warning for the United States to get its act together before November comes around.

In the United States:

Two new bills announced in the US Congress prioritize human rights protections in the country’s global response. The two bills, the Protecting Human Rights during Pandemic Act, and the COVID-19 International Response and Recovery Act (CIRRA), both authorize funds for programs supporting democracy, civil society, and internet freedom, and require reporting from the Department of State and USAID to monitor the response to pandemic and respond to attacks on democratic institutions. Read our statement in support here.

Around the World:

Let’s take a quick peek at some of the major developments on media around the world:

  • The government of the Philippines took the country’s largest broadcaster off the air, following through on threats that President Rodrigo Duterte has made for years. ABS-CBN’s license to operate expired, and the government issued a cease-and-desist order to take it off of the air rather than allowing it to operate on a temporary basis. The coronavirus response under President Duterte has already been criticized, including by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), for its militarized enforcement of quarantine measures, including tens of thousands of detentions and several deaths at the hands of police.
  • Eleven people in Bangladesh, including a cartoonist and a writer, were detained for social media posts criticizing the government’s pandemic response. The charges include “undermining the image” of the father of the current prime minister.
  • In Vietnam, a broad April 15 decree against “fake news” has resulted in a spike in instances of Facebook taking down content at the government’s request. Hundreds of people had already been arrested for social media use in the first three months of this year in Vietnam, as the government imposed even tighter control over information. Now cooperation to control content will make it even harder for Vietnamese to receive information.
  • In France, the government was forced to backtrack after trying to create its own webpage that claimed to label disinformation in the French media. The French press objected, saying that such labeling amounted to government interference in the free operation of the press, and the government took down the webpage.
  • In Tajikistan, the government is blocking a website tallying coronavirus deaths that does not jibe with official figures. Tajikistan was one of the last states in the world to acknowledge that the virus had reached its territory or to take measures to contain its spread. The government officially has reported 20 deaths, while the site had reported 140.


This week we want to celebrate Taiwan’s vice president, Chen Chien-jen, an epidemiologist who has been leading his country’s successful response to the crisis. Learning from Taiwan’s painful response to the SARS virus in 2003, when he was health minister, Chen helped coordinate a response to this virus with measures that prevented the need for a full-scale lockdown. Taiwan has had only seven deaths from the virus.

If you are interested in knowing more about the situation in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, follow our Senior Research Analyst Sarah Cook on Twitter and read her latest in The Diplomat, about how China’s disinformation tactics are changing during the coronavirus crisis.

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