The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The pandemic’s chilling effect on free speech

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“Our world is facing a pandemic of human rights abuses,” wrote United Nations Secretary General António Guterres in a February op-ed for the Guardian. He lamented how the spread of the coronavirus had exposed brutal inequities in many societies, forced tens of millions of people deeper into poverty, and set back progress on gender equality by decades.

Guterres also pointed to how some governments have used the public health emergency as an excuse for harsh crackdowns. “Using the pandemic as a pretext, authorities in some countries have deployed heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalise basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and restrict the activities of nongovernmental organisations,” he wrote.

More than a year since the onset of the pandemic, there’s a growing body of evidence to underpin what the U.N. leader described as its “shrinking” of “civic space.” Human Rights Watch documented at least 83 governments worldwide that used the pandemic “to justify violating the exercise of free speech and peaceful assembly … The victims include journalists, activists, healthcare workers, political opposition groups, and others who have criticized government responses to the coronavirus.” The Committee to Protect Journalists found that, in 2020, a record number of journalists were imprisoned globally, some of whom were reporting on the pandemic.

According to PEN America, a freedom of expression advocacy organization, in 2020, at least 273 writers, academics and public intellectuals in 35 countries were in prison or unjustly held in detention in connection with their writing, their work or related activism. It’s a considerable uptick from the organization’s estimate of at least 238 writers and public intellectuals in 2019.

And the pandemic is in part to blame. “Writers have helped expose truths and counter falsehoods in ways that have shaped the global public health response,” noted PEN America in its report for the “Freedom to Write Index,” which released Wednesday. “At the same time, the emergency provided cover for crackdowns on human rights and expansions of government power over speech and expression.”

Those crackdowns took place on almost every continent: “In Uganda, novelist and journalist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was detained and tortured in April, under charges purportedly related to COVID but which appear to have been motivated by authorities’ displeasure over his writing,” the report noted. “In China, police officers used the pretext of a ‘coronavirus prevention check’ to find and arrest the essayist and activist Xu Zhiyong at his lawyer’s home, and to place poet Li Bifeng into ‘enforced quarantine’ as a form of detention. In Cuba, police invoked a coronavirus-related ‘health code violation’ in November as a pretext to raid the headquarters of the artistic San Isidro Movement, arresting more than a dozen members of the movement.”

This is the second year the organization has conducted what it describes as a “census” of detained writers worldwide. The pandemic deepened the adversity faced by those they monitored, with numerous writers and dissident voices contracting the coronavirus in prison. In June 2020, Saudi columnist Saleh al-Shehi likely died of covid-related complications. “Writers are shining a light on the ways in which these governments have failed to sufficiently respond to crisis,” said Summer Lopez, senior director of free expression programs at PEN America. “Writers are trying give vision to how things could be different, and that’s a reason why we have seen a lot of people targeted.”

China led the organization’s rankings of jailed writers with 81. These include at least 33 artists, academics and other cultural figures in Xinjiang, the far-western region that’s the site of sweeping government crackdown on ethnic minorities, including Uyghurs. “This number may be only the tip of the iceberg,” Karin Karlekar, lead author of PEN America’s report, told Today’s WorldView, referring to the difficulty of accurate reporting in the region, where millions of people have been allegedly swept into detainment camps in recent years. “It’s such an information black hole.”

Karlekar also warned of the deteriorating situation in China’s neighbor, India, the site of “continuing attacks on journalists, harassment of dissidents, leftist intellectuals and people who speak out in favor of minority rights.” India was the only recognized democracy in the top 10 countries ranked by PEN America for their role in incarcerating public intellectuals and dissidents.

Belarus, which had zero documented cases in 2019, rocketed up the ranks with 18 in 2020 — a reflection of the role numerous authors, celebrities and academics played in the weeks of protests against long-ruling President Alexander Lukashenko last year.

Myanmar had eight documented cases in 2020, including the members of a satirical poetry troupe known as the Peacock Generation. But those numbers do not reflect those swept up in mass arrests after the Feb. 1 coup launched by the country’s military, which has issued warrants for numerous outspoken writers and celebrities. “The situation in Myanmar was not good already,” said Karlekar, “but we expect it’s going to be the Belarus of 2021.”

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