A New Warning That International Pandemic Responses Are Eroding Freedom

In a year of extraordinary and often terrible actions taken in response to COVID-19, yet another international civil society group warns that governments are leveraging the pandemic to tighten controls over their subjects. Ominously, it’s not the first such warning and comes as even traditionally liberal democratic countries step up surveillance of dissidents and crack down on public opposition.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has had a dire impact on civic freedoms globally,” Civicus, a South Africa-based group that promotes civil society and freedom of association, reported last week. “Our research shows that governments … are using the pandemic as an opportunity to introduce or implement additional restrictions on civic freedoms.”

The United States drops in status from “narrowed” to “obstructed” for “restrictive laws, the excessive use of force against protesters, and an increasingly hostile environment for the press.” The Civicus rating emphasizes militarized tactics and mass arrests in response to the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted this year. While those protests aren’t explicitly linked to the pandemic, they were likely exacerbated by the disruptions and economic pain caused by lockdowns that brought simmering preexisting tensions to a boil.

Unfortunately, Civicus’s ratings criteria seem anecdote-driven and rather arbitrary. While the U.S. is (rightfully) dinged for sometimes heavy-handed treatment of protesters (while police in other locations seemingly surrendered the streets to favored political factions), other countries get a relative pass for cracking down on public expression that was specifically targeted at pandemic responses.

Australia, for example, is classified as “narrowed”—a better ranking than the U.S.—even as authorities arrest people for merely planning to protest against pandemic-related lockdowns. The country is also moving to centralize surveillance of travelers in the name of public health and to ease domestic monitoring of electronic communications.

“Journalists in France have been obstructed in doing their jobs through intimidation and detention while covering protests,” observes Civicus, which ranks the country as “narrowed.”

Last Friday, 142 people were arrested in Paris during demonstrations against a law that would restrict photographing police officers during such events as protests against lockdowns.

Germany‘s arrests of anti-lockdown protesters are acknowledged even as the country gets an “open” rating.

Unmentioned is Germany’s surveillance of opponents to restrictive anti-pandemic measures on the grounds that they have been “infiltrated by extremists.” The “move is effectively a public warning to sympathizers and leaders of the group—which officials described as the ‘epicenter’ of Germany’s coronavirus protests—but it falls short of banning the movement,” notes The Washington Post.

The listing for Israel—ranked as “obstructed”—focuses on the treatment of Palestinians. That’s certainly an important issue. Still, as Civicus emphasizes governments’ exploitation of health concerns to justify expanded authority, it’s worth mentioning that the Shin Bet, the country’s internal security force, presented bogus information to gain authorization to monitor citizens for coronavirus. “In other words, the committee voted and reaffirmed surveillance on Israeli citizens by the Shin Bet based on partial or even misleading data,” according to Haaretz.

That said, the Civicus warning is timely, and the organization’s concerns are shared by others.

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Author: HP McLovincraft

Seeker of rabbit holes. Pessimist. Libertine. Contrarian. Your huckleberry. Possibly true tales of sanity-blasting horror also known as abject reality. Prepare yourself.

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