COVID-19 Op-ed

Gagging Dissidents Amid COVID-19: The [Un]Democratic Décor in Failing Democracies

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A K M Zakir HossainPart-time
Faculty at FGS, Mahidol University Thailand and Human Rights Defender Network
(HRDN) member of Odhikar Bangladesh

COVID-19 presents a range of new challenges to democracy and
human rights. Mobilizing an effective public response to an emerging pandemic
requires clear communication and trust (Holmes, 2008; Taylor et al., 2009;
van der Weerd et al., 2011; Vaughn and Tinker, 2011 cited in Allcott et al.,
2020). Repressive regimes around the world have responded to the pandemic in
ways that serve their political interests. COVID-19 is affecting 210
countries and territories
 around the world. The world has
accepted a total of 292,913 deaths and 4,343,251 affected persons as on 13
May 2020 (Worldometer, 2020). On 11 March 2020, WHO declared that COVID-19
can be characterized as a pandemic (WHO, 2020).With the rush of fear and
anxiety around COVID-19 around the world, many people are wary about how the
pandemic will impact our civil and political rights. Will government enforced
quarantines or curfews impose on our right to move freely? In this critical
moment, it’s crucial to be able to speak confidently about states’
obligations to protect human rights.In response to the pandemic and to
control the spread of the coronavirus, governments have taken emergency
measures to flatten the curve or suppress the spread of the disease, many of
which have compromised human rights and freedoms. The UN High Commissioner
for Human Rights views that restrictions taken to respond to the virus must
be motivated by legitimate public health goals and should not be used simply
to quash dissent. However, many governments seem to have crossed the line. In
Bangladesh and Thailand, apart from restricting movement and regulating
social interactions, governments appear to be cracking down on free speech,
silencing those who have expressed their concerns over strict handling of the
crisis.Authorities have targeted academics, researchers, health
professionals, and other people who speak about the government’s wrong actions
or misplanning. In Bangladesh, the government has detained a number of people
including academics, journalists and political party members for social media
posts. It has been widely observed that the government of Bangladesh has been
using the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018 to silence
genuine concerns or criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis
(HRW, 2020). Simultaneously, the Thai government applied the
Computer Crimes Act, Article 116 and the Thai
Criminal Code
, Articles 326 to 333 to criminalize defamation, and
‘anti-fake news’ laws to monitor and suppress online content and prosecute
individuals for various broadly defined violations of the law (AI, 2020; HRW,
2020).Thai authorities are prosecuting social media users who criticize
government in a systematic campaign to crush dissent which is being
exacerbated by new COVID-19 restrictions (AI, 2020). The Bangladesh
government started monitoring private television channels, printing and
social media for “rumors” and “propaganda” regarding COVID-19 by issuing
government circulars since 25 March 2020 and dozens of academics, researcher,
students, and general people faced legal repression under the highly
controversial DSA 2018.In this situation, even academic
work is under the spotlight of the government authorities. In Bangladesh, one
researcher who attempted to publish a paper that examines the impact of
COVID-19 based on epidemiological modeling was reportedly put under official
investigation. This researcher first presented his paper in a report of the
Imperial College (Elsland and O’Hare, 2020) that aimed to assist the
government to enact policies to contain the spread of the virus in the country.
In Thailand, an Amnesty International (AI) report says that Thai authorities
are always watching human rights defenders, activists, politicians, lawyers
and academics who described how the government criminalizes the right to
freedom of expression to oppress those perceived to be critical of Thai
authorities. “Through harassment and prosecution of its online
detractors, Thailand’s government has created a climate of fear designed to
silence those with dissenting views,” said Amnesty’s Senior Research
Director Clare Algar.Under international human rights law, governments have
an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the
right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds, regardless of
frontiers. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of
public health may not put the right itself in jeopardy (UDHR, 1948; ICCPR,
1966).Historically, pandemics, wars, and famines have led to the expansion of
powers of the state at the expense of democratic rights and freedoms. These
freedoms once lost, are not easily regained. And when it comes to downgrading
democracy, the right to free speech tends to be the proverbial canary in the
coal mine. According to Menon-Johansson (2005), “Only governments sensitive
to the demands of their citizens appropriately respond to needs of their
nation.” Moreover, it is a well-known communication principle that
misinformation or fake news is better handled by authenticating information
and creating awareness among the audiences, not by coercion.Therefore, in
this critical time, both the governments in Bangladesh and in Thailand should
act democratically. The authorities should create civic space through
national coordination with the experts and specialists to fight against the
spread of the virus rather than combing social media and television channels
or newspapers and arresting people for posting about COVID-19. It is the
responsibility of the government to provide information necessary to protect
and promote their rights, including the right to health. Both the authorities
in Bangladesh and Thailand should also facilitate academic and research
freedom by ensuring that every citizen is informed accurately about the
spread and impact of the virus and at the same time all misinformation and
fake news are tackled without harassing the people and without hampering
their right to information and freedom of expression.Bibliography:Allcott,
H., et al., 2020. ‘Polarization and Public Health: Partisan Differences in
Social Distancing during the Coronavirus Pandemic’ NBER Working Paper w26946.
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to intensify crackdown on COVID-19 critics. DW 23 April
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Rights Watch, 2020. ‘Bangladesh: End Wave of COVID-19 ‘Rumor’ Arrests;
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.https://drive.google.com/file/d/1NHGUsUv6FsL4x1vacQEXERso14szOdoK/view

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