Covid-19: Excuse to Crack Down on Freedoms

Press, rights organizations under unprecedented attack

Governments in Asia and across the world are using the Coronavirus crisis to curtail civil liberties, extend surveillance to an unprecedented degree and seeking to limit freedom of the press, alarming press and civil rights protection organizations.

What follows is a partial list, given that new attacks are occurring almost every day on both individuals and reporters. Journalists have already been reported missing or have been attacked in Ghana, Iran, Ethiopia, Croatia, Somalia, Chechnya, Libya, Zimbabwe, Jordan, El Salvador, Ukraine, Zambia and Croatia, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders. Newspapers have been suspended in Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan and Iran. 

In China, Li Zehua has been missing since late February after 2 million people had seen his videos, which thwarted initial government attempts to quash information on the deadly outbreak. He was last seen as he filmed security agents entering his rented quarters. Chen Qiushi is also missing after reporting on the initial coronavirus outbreak. 

China, which already has generated widespread concern over its ubiquitous facial-recognition technology, is reportedly using a mix of ‘smart’ thermal scanners and facial recognition technologies in public places to track the spread of the virus, according to Amnesty International. Alibaba has rolled out a health tracking feature that uses data about personal health and assigns a color-coded health status to an individual. Green is for ‘safe’, yellow requires a seven-day quarantine and red is for a 14-day quarantine.  This system is used to determine people’s access to public spaces. Worryingly, the app shares this data with law enforcement authorities.

In the United States, which until the current regime has traditionally sought to guarantee rights across the world, President Donald Trump has accused the government-funded Voice of America of distorting coverage of China. Attorney General William Barr has asked Congress to craft legislation for judges to suspend habeas corpus, holding suspects without trial indefinitely during the coronavirus crisis and other emergencies. The House of Representatives has not acted on Barr’s request and is not likely to. 

As usual, it is the Philippines, with President Rodrigo Duterte leading the pack, ordering police to shoot quarantine violators. While a spokesman later said the president didn’t really mean that, hundreds have been arrested for violating the curfew as well as ignoring social distancing and other regulations. In one case, local officials in Santa Cruz south of Manila locked up youths inside a dog cage after they violated the curfew. In another case, officials in Metro Manila broke up a party and forced the participants into a daisy chain to weave through the neighborhood chanting advice not to emulate them. Others were forced to sit in the intense midday sun after their arrest.

On March 24, the Philippine Congress granted Duterte emergency powers to combat the virus, which appears not to have been enough for him. On April 16, he threatened a takeover by the military and police after increasing numbers of people began to leave their homes. Checkpoints arrested motorists attempting to cross barangay boundaries in violation of the lockdown, which covers the main island of Luzon.

Other countries that have issued orders potentially curtailing rights include the junta-backed government of Thailand, which declared a state of emergency, supposedly to address the health crisis, but which was viewed as a convenient method of cracking down on massive protests after the Constitutional Court disbanded the popular Future Forward Party.  The bans on large gatherings quash the student protest.

Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams charged that Thai authorities are using the “anti-fake news” laws to prosecute people critical of the government’s response to the virus. “Thai authorities seem intent on shutting down critical opinions from the media and general public about their response to the COVID-19 crisis,” Adams said.

Cambodia’s legislature this week invoked a state of emergency allowing for the curbing of fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, association, and assembly, all of which are enshrined in the country’s constitution and all of which have been widely ignored. Concerns about the virus on social media by both the opposition and ordinary people have already been met with arrest, according to Human Rights Watch.

Critics say Malaysia's Movement Control Order, which forbids large gatherings – including political ones – has been extended, is a convenient way for Muhyiddin Yassin’s government to consolidate power. Parliament has already been suspended until May 9 while Muhyiddin seeks to gather support from the remnants of the United Malays National Organization. 

More insidiously, governments across the world are using the crisis to extend electronic surveillance through the use of cellphones. According to Amnesty International and other sources, Austria, Belgium, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany are all reportedly gathering aggregated, purportedly anonymized location data on cellphones from telecom companies in an effort to track the virus. Concerns have been raised in India that the Modi administration will use the technology to quell dissent in its Muslim population as the Hindu majority increasingly assets its domination.

Other countries, however, are not anonymizing the data. They include Ecuador and Israel, which has been using data on infected persons to send health advisory texts including the personal details of infected patients. South Korea authorities have been sending health advisory texts which have been accompanied with personal details of infected patients, including hyperlinks which open to detailed data about their movements, according to Amnesty International. The Polish government has rolled out an app intended to ensure compliance with home quarantining that reportedly sends prompts for selfies to be uploaded, which are then verified using facial recognition and location data to ensure that the person hasn’t violated quarantine orders.

These measures have raised alarm bells because they breach medical confidentiality and fuel stigma against people with the virus, the global rights NGO said. They do not “appear to meet the conditions required for surveillance to be lawful and are a violation of the right to privacy. These measures raise important questions about how our personal information is collected, used and shared. Once personal data is collected, there is a real danger of it being shared and used for purposes other than health tracking.”

Other governments have simply shut the Internet off, including India, which has unceremoniously isolated Jammu and Kashmir, which it took over last August, revoking the region’s special status which was granted at independence in 1947. Bangladesh has imposed Internet and phone blackouts in Rohingya refugee camps, with Myanmar imposing blackouts in Rakhine and Chin states, both of which are the focus of armed insurrections.  

“Internet shutdowns block people from getting essential information and services,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate for Amnesty International. “During this global health crisis, shutdowns directly harm people’s health and lives, and undermine efforts to bring the pandemic under control.”

For people around the world staying at home, either willingly or because of government restrictions, the internet is critical to communicate with doctors, family, and friends. For many children and others seeking an education, it is needed to continue learning as schools shutter, according to Amnesty International.

“Internet shutdowns can have a greater impact on women, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals, people with disabilities, and older people who may rely on the internet for online support services. These groups are most likely to rely on the internet to protect their physical safety, access sexual and reproductive health information and care, and participate in social, professional, and economic life, particularly when women are disproportionately taking on more child care and education responsibilities, and when isolation can lead to or exacerbate

The disturbing question is what will happen after the pandemic is under control. This sudden expansion of technology into surveillance and health supervision, if it remains in place, has the potential to fundamentally alter the future of privacy and other human rights. The attacks on journalism, in the wake of already-unprecedented fake news bills and other restrictions, present an existentialist crisis for a free press everywhere.