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Investigating the coronavirus: Regimes use public safety guise to repress rights

Across the world, democracy watchdogs are warning that emergency measures aimed at quelling the COVID-19 outbreak are also turning into tools of repression.

ICIJ’s mission is to reveal injustice and hold the powerful to account. Do you know of someone exploiting the coronavirus crisis, or have another story to share? We’d like to hear it. (Ici en Francais, aquí en Español)

The death of Li Wenliang, the Wuhan doctor who first blew the whistle about what’s now known as COVID-19, ignited public opinion, both inside and outside China.

Citizens took to social media to express anger at the Chinese government for reprimanding Dr. Li for “spreading rumours,” and to question the government’s actions in suppressing vital information about the source of the epidemic.

Now that the virus has spread to dozens of countries globally, other authoritarian regimes have sought to employ more repressive measures in the guise of public safety.

On April 1, Serbian police arrested journalist Ana Lalić who had written about the lack of protective gear for medical personnel at a local hospital, Balkan Stories reported. Lalić was accused of spreading panic and sentenced to 48 hours in jail without trial, her lawyer told the news outlet.

Earlier this week, Hungary’s parliament went as far as passing a law that grants nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to sideline parliament, rule by decree indefinitely and punish those who spread disinformation about the virus. The decision came just a few days after a letter from Council of Europe Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić to Orban warning that an “indefinite and uncontrolled state of emergency cannot guarantee that the basic principles of democracy will be observed.”

Across the world, a number of democracy watchdogs sounded a similar alarm, fearing the emergency measures aimed at quelling the outbreak are also turning into tools to repress basic human rights.

One night in late March, Ralph Zapata, an editor of Peruvian news outlet OjoPúblico, a partner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, was working from his home in the north of the country when 10 agents burst in and took him to a local police station, the website reported. Zapata, who coordinates the outlet’s reporting on COVID-19, was arrested for allegedly violating a government-imposed curfew. He was released that same night, after his colleagues protested with the Interior Ministry and showed the police intervention was unwarranted.

In Venezuela, local media reported that the governor of Delta Amacuro, a state on the Atlantic coast, threatened to arrest reporter Melquiades Ávila who questioned the state hospitals’ preparedness on his Facebook page. During a radio show, the governor accused the journalist of criminal conduct and of “recklessly” alarming the public. Ávila has left the state and is hiding, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Brazil, whose populist president Jair Bolsonaro has dismissed efforts to mitigate the outbreak as “hysteria,” is among the countries that suspended deadlines for responding to freedom of information requests.

In several African countries, journalists covering the pandemic have faced violence at the hands of law enforcement officials, according to Reporters Without Borders. Victims include a reporter for Congolese television Alfajari TV, who was run down by police officers while covering a lockdown in his province, a Senegalese TV crew allegedly hit by a policeman with a baton and a Ugandan reporter attacked by the local police and robbed of his camera.

Asian leaders are flexing their soft and hard power, too.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi held a meeting with prominent national and regional media chiefs on the day he imposed a nationwide lockdown affecting 1.3 billion people. According to Modi’s website, he asked the journalists to “act as a link between government and people” and to “publish inspiring and positive stories.”

The Caravan, an Indian English-language magazine, criticized the move as part of a propaganda strategy which would make journalists “part of the government” instead of watchdogs.

A few days after meeting the press, the Indian government went even further, ramping up its efforts to censor the media, legal news website Live Law reported.

On March 31, the government approached the Supreme Court seeking to ban news outlets from publishing any COVID-19-related news without government clearance. The court denied the request.

In Cambodia, where the government has faced rare criticism over its pandemic response, at least 17 people, including former opposition members and journalists, have been arrested since January for sharing information about the coronavirus, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Governments are responsible for providing information necessary for protecting and promoting rights, including the right to health,” the advocacy group said in its report. “Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put in jeopardy the right itself.”

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