Governments around the world are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to restrict freedoms, punish independent news operations and attack minorities, according to a global survey by Freedom House, the U.S.-based nonprofit known for its annual assessment of global democracy.
The report, published Friday, found that 91 countries have imposed new controls on news media because of the pandemic, and at least 72 have restricted free speech or criticism of the government. The measures extend from countries rated as “Free,” such as India, to those judged “Partly Free,” like the Philippines, to the “Not Free,” including China, Russia and Venezuela.
All told, clampdowns have weakened democracy in 80 countries, accelerating a 14-year decline in freedom as measured by the group’s annual survey. “What began as a worldwide health crisis has become part of the global crisis for democracy,” said Freedom House president Michael J. Abramowitz in a statement accompanying the release, titled Democracy Under Lockdown. “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 report warned that China’s reaction to the coronavirus “could prove a dystopian model for the future: increased nationalist and propagandistic rhetoric at home in an effort to drown out calls for transparency and accountability, enhanced and innovative technological surveillance, crackdowns on individuals within and outside the country who share information that contradicts regime messaging, and the persecution of potential critics among the domestic elite.”
It also singled out Sri Lanka, where Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered the arrest of anyone who contradicts the government on COVID-19, allowed the legislature to expire without new elections, and the minority Muslim population has been scapegoated. Other countries also made public health a pretext against vulnerable groups: migrants by Serbia, Romany by Bulgaria, foreign workers by Kuwait.
In the U.S., the report slammed the Trump Administration for creating “a fog of misinformation around the pandemic,” making “false and misleading information that put lives at risk” and attempting to politicize public health.
The survey covered events from January to September in 192 countries, surveying analysts, journalists and activists in 105 of them. They were not optimistic. More than 60% of the observers said they expect the impact on political rights and civil liberties from the pandemic would last three to five years.
Correction, Oct. 2
The original version of this story misstated a country that Freedom House says is using the pandemic as a pretext against migrants. It is Serbia, not Croatia.