An international civil rights alliance called CIVICUS Monitor published a report this week that accused countries around the world, including the United States, of using the coronavirus pandemic as an “opportunity to introduce or implement additional restrictions on civic freedoms.”
CIVICUS Monitor had a generally pessimistic view of global civil liberties even before the pandemic — according to the group’s metrics, things were getting worse almost everywhere. The coronavirus dramatically accelerated that downward trend. The depth of pessimism in their latest bulletin can be conveyed by noting that the only two countries where the level of civic freedom was “upgraded” were Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The United States was among the 11 nations “downgraded” in the latest report. According to CIVICUS Monitor’s analysis, 87 percent of the world’s population now lives in nations with strongly negative civic freedom ratings, a four percent increase from 2019, and a quarter of the human race lives under repressive authoritarian regimes with the worst rating. (Sudan and the DRC were upgraded from the worst level, “closed” societies, to “repressed.”)
“The Covid-19 [Chinese coronavirus] pandemic has had a dire impact on civic freedoms globally,” the report asserted, citing increases in the “aggressive use of force” against protesters, censorship of journalists and the general public, and the harassment of human rights advocates.
“The use of detention as the main tactic to restrict protests only shows the hypocrisy of governments using Covid-19 as a pretense to crack down on protests — the virus is more likely to spread in confined spaces like prisons,” argued lead researcher Marianna Belalba Barreto.
“Our research reflects a deepening civic space crisis across the globe and highlights how governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to further curtail rights, including by passing legislation to criminalize speech,” Barreto said.
CIVICUS Monitor counted several “positive changes” brought about by protest movements: “In Chile, mass protests forced the government to hold a referendum to change the constitution. In the USA, some states pledged to dismantle or undertake structural reform of their police forces following Black Lives Matter protests. While in Malawi, months of protests led to a historic rerun of the presidential elections and a transition of power.”
There were considerable differences between the three movements saluted by the report and their outcomes. The Chilean protests involved violent Communist groups building on popular anger over an increase in public transportation fares; there were numerous deaths and considerable property destruction, spreading from public transit facilities to churches. The desired constitutional referendum was held, but Chile is one of the nations downgraded by CIVICUS Monitor for civic freedom in 2020. The Black Lives Matter protests also featured widespread violence and property destruction, and it is highly debatable that their goal to “dismantle” the police would improve civic freedom. The people of Malawi demonstrated against massive fraud in the 2019 election, the country’s Constitutional Court nullified the election results, and an opposition candidate won in the 2020 rerun, the first time such an outcome has been achieved in Africa.
In fairness, it should be noted that authoritarian regimes almost always justify crackdowns against protest movements as efforts to protect the public and maintain the rule of law, as the Chinese government and its proxies in Hong Kong consistently claim about their repression of pro-democracy demonstrations.
Other observers have previously noted the deterioration of civic freedom and growth of surveillance during the coronavirus pandemic, including the alarming growth of the already imposing Chinese surveillance state, and the high possibility that Chinese practices and surveillance technology will spread to other nations. The Chinese government has been insistently advocating greater authoritarianism around the world as the only way to control the coronavirus.