By Our Reporter
At least 83 governments worldwide have used the Covid-19 pandemic to justify violating the exercise of free speech and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said today.
Authorities have attacked, detained, prosecuted, and in some cases killed critics, broken up peaceful protests, closed media outlets, and enacted vague laws criminalizing speech that they claim threatens public health.
The victims include journalists, activists, healthcare workers, political opposition groups, and others who have criticized government responses to the coronavirus.
“Governments should counter Covid-19 by encouraging people to mask up, not shut up,” said Gerry Simpson, associate crisis and conflict director at Human Rights Watch. “Beating, detaining, prosecuting, and censoring peaceful critics violates many fundamental rights, including free speech, while doing nothing to stop the pandemic.”
Governments and other state authorities should immediately end excessive restrictions on free speech in the name of preventing the spread of Covid-19 and hold to account those responsible for serious human rights violations and abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
The United Nations Human Rights Council in its session beginning February 22, should commission a new report from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights focusing on states’ compliance with their human rights obligations in responding to Covid-19, including the impact of restrictions on free speech and peaceful assembly.
Human Rights Watch reviewed national government responses around the world to the Covid-19 pandemic and found that unlawful interference with free speech has been one of the most common forms of overreach. In some countries, violations were limited. In others, such as China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Russia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Vietnam, government violations affected hundreds or thousands of people.
Military or police forces in at least 18 countries physically assaulted journalists, bloggers, and protesters, including some who criticized government responses to Covid-19 such as insufficient healthcare funding, lockdowns, and a lack of masks and gloves for medical workers.
Abuses include firing live ammunition at peaceful protesters, beating them at checkpoints, and assaulting them in detention, with apparent impunity. In most cases, these forces said they were enforcing Covid-19-related regulations.
In Uganda, security forces also killed dozens of protesters.
Security forces killed protesters, report noted, naming Security minister, Gen. Elly Tumwine as one of the perpetrators of the November 18 to 19, 2020 killings in Kampala.
“In November, the security forces arrested Robert Kyagulanyi, a presidential candidate, for allegedly breaching Covid-19 regulations by mobilizing large crowds for his campaign rallies. They then used teargas and live bullets against supporters protesting his detention, killing at least 54 and injuring 45,” the report partly reads.
“During the same period, the authorities allowed large pro-government rallies. Security Minister Elly Tumwine warned against further protests and told the public that the police have the right “to shoot you and kill you.” On November 29, President Yoweri Museveni promised to investigate the killings and to compensate some of the victims.”
Security forces or state officials in at least 18 countries have physically assaulted journalists and bloggers reporting on Covid-19-related policies, as well as protesters, opposition activists, and lawyers, including some who criticized government responses to Covid-19.
In most cases, the security forces justified their excessive use of force by saying they were enforcing Covid-19 regulations.
Since January 2020, governments in at least 24 countries have enacted vague laws and measures that criminalize spreading alleged misinformation or other coverage of Covid-19, or of other public health crises, which the authorities claim threaten the public’s well-being. Governments can easily use imprecise laws as tools of repression.
Get full report here.