Doctor with surgical mask
Doctor with surgical mask (Image by Sergei Tokmakov from Pixabay)

In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon headquarters of the US Department of Defense came the virtual reversal of the global trend towards liberalization and democratization that had characterized the last two decades of the 20th century. 

Combating terrorism became the excuse in a number of countries for warrantless arrests, detention without charges, discrimination on the basis of racial and ethnic profiling, and the practice known as rendition, in which suspected terrorists in a country whose laws prohibited torture were transported to others less finicky.

Protesters, political dissidents and government critics were silenced by labeling them terrorists. The word terrorism is still being used for the same purpose today in many countries including the Philippines, which is in fact on the verge of enacting an even more restrictive version of its 2007 Human Security Act that among other provisions prolongs the detention without charges of alleged terrorists.

As fears of terrorism, often with the encouragement of right-wing and Islamophobic groups, escalated, what followed was the election of illiberal and even fascist demagogues who continued to exploit those fears to keep themselves in power.

The use of terrorism as an excuse to suppress human rights and expand government powers is still ongoing. But the world is witnessing what could be the second wave of that anti-democratic process, as governments impose further restrictions on movement and mass assembly to combat the spread of the COVID-19 contagion.  As real and as urgent as the threat is, it is also being used by many governments across the globe to tighten their grip on power by restricting free speech and intimidating and even arresting protesters and critics.

As the British journalist David Gilbert points out in a recent online article, authoritarian leaders in some 30 countries are “taking advantage of the outbreak  and the ensuing chaos to give themselves extraordinary new powers, while elections get delayed or forced to go ahead depending on what suits the incumbent rulers. Security forces have been empowered to conduct brutal crackdowns, free expression has been censored, and privacy has been eroded.”  

Gilbert quotes Allie Funk of the US-based human rights group Freedom House. Funk is convinced that certain countries’ “exploiting the crisis to expand their power and undermine human rights” could just be “the tip of the iceberg.” Alarmed over that possibility, the United Nations has urged world leaders not to use the crisis to curtail human rights and to instead limit restrictions on such rights as the right to privacy and to make them less intrusive.

But among the countries that have ignored the UN’s warning are Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which has devised a number of monitoring systems to track citizen movements, among them by accessing data from mobile phones and credit card transactions. 

Meanwhile, Poland’s leaders want to hold presidential elections next month despite the current ban on campaigning, because it would favor the incumbent president.

In Hungary, a new law empowers that country’s President to rule by decree and has left the decision of when those powers will end to his own discretion.

In Israel, those who violate home quarantine rules face up to six months in prison, while in Serbia, before it was revoked a decree gave government total control on information about the crisis.

Neither Africa, Latin America nor Asia has been immune to the same efforts of incumbent governments to tighten and expand their grip on power at the expense of human rights.

In Uganda, the government arrested 20 individuals on the allegation that they were violating rules against the assembly of more than 10 people. Egypt recently canceled the credentials of two of its own journalists for reporting that the number of infections in that country had passed 19,000.

In Chile, the military has been deployed in the streets to silence protests, while Bolivian law has empowered the government to arrest critics of government policies.

Nearer to home, in Bangladesh, a dozen people critical of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis have been arrested, while in Cambodia, a so- called emergency bill allows the government to censor all media and to monitor telephone communications.

In “the biggest democracy in the world,” India, some states are collecting data on citizens without any legal basis. One state even requires people quarantined at home to upload a selfie every 30 minutes to prove they’re in isolation.

Thailand’s emergency laws enable the government to impose curfews and censor the media, while the government files charges against journalists for criticizing the government response to the crisis.

Myanmar has blocked a number of websites supposedly to combat disinformation, and arrested three street artists for painting an image of the grim reaper spreading the virus that Buddhist fundamentalists said looked like a Buddhist monk.

And of course, Gilbert continues, there’s the Philippines, where, in a fit of pique over hungry protesters’ taking to the streets to demand government help, President Rodrigo Duterte, over national television, ordered the police and military to “shoot them dead.” Gilbert doesn’t mention that some of the protesters were arrested and charges filed against them.  Barangay officials also held several young men in dog cages for violating curfew. The crisis has also been used to penalize the dissemination of false information and to publicly shame violators of the rules of the Enhanced Community Quarantine. There is even talk of a “martial law style” lockdown.

These are only a few of the dozens of governments that are intruding into the privacy of their citizens, curtailing free expression, and gathering information that can be used against protesters and critics. At least in some countries if not in benighted Philippines, the measures being used to supposedly combat the pandemic would have been condemned in normal times for their audacious contempt for human rights. Fear of the virus has instead allowed these methods to pass with little or no challenge. But what is even more disturbing is that most of them contain no “sunset clause,” or limits on until when they will be in effect, which makes their remaining in force likely even when the pandemic ends. 

The measures being implemented in the Philippines are presumably effective only for the duration of the emergency. But they were, in the first place, introduced and adopted in the context of government and its supporters’ antipathy to human rights and preference for extra-Constitutional short cuts in governance, which among others includes playing fast and loose with due process, and the imposition of excessive penalties not only against those who dare exercise their  rights to free expression and press freedom, but even for petty crimes. There is every possibility that with little or no public protest, current restrictions will remain in place even after the the pandemic.

Because of the threat to what little remains of Philippine elite democracy, free expression and press freedom groups, human rights defenders and civil society, despite the urgency of combating the spread of COVID-19, must closely monitor government, hold it to account, and forewarn the public on the continuing danger of the return of authoritarian rule during as well as post-COVID-19.

The defense of human rights and the Constitution should be as much a part of the road map to Philippine recovery as the revival of the economy and assuring the health, safety and welfare of every citizen. This much is clear if the country is to survive the coming months, free expression and citizen engagement being the only antidotes to the blunders of ineffectual, self- serving governments.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Image by Sergei Tokmakov from Pixabay

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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