Rights watchdog: ‘Repressive’ governments used pandemic to restrict civic freedoms
MANILA, Philippines — A yearly report from an international rights monitoring group has claimed that repressive governments around the world have used the COVID-19 pandemic to further restrict civic freedoms like free speech and right to assembly.
According to Civicus Monitor’s report released on Tuesday, people from different areas continued to protest, finding other ways to vent out frustration about their respective governments even with distancing restrictions due to the coroanvirus disease.
Civicus noted that while it is normal and legal to hold some liberties during health emergencies, like travel ban and stay-at-home policies. But some governments allegedly took it a step further, and imposed restrictions under the guise of health protocols.
“While limitations on rights are allowed by international law in response to health emergencies, international law is clear that those limitations must be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory,” Civicus said in its report.
“However, our research suggests that repressive governments used the pandemic as an opportunity to introduce or implement additional restrictions on civic freedoms,” it added.
The study mentioned in particular the various protests that broke out in Chile, Hong Kong, Nigeria, and especially in the United States. Demonstrations in the US were prompted by demands for racial justice and police accountability, as the Black Lives Matter movement took steam.
Civicus also mentioned protests in other areas like Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and the recent rallies in Thailand.
In the Philippines, several protests have been conducted since the pandemic came about: programs were held in protest of the Anti-Terrorism Law, during the Philippine Independence Day, amid President Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Nation Address, and other significant dates.
While there was no widespread repression among people joining rallies, there were still some people arrested for allegedly violating health restrictions, while rallyists and the government debated over the legality of holding protests amid the pandemic.
Civicus noted that it was “ironic” that people rallying were penalized by means of detention — which could contribute to the spread of COVID-19.
“It was ironic, given the pandemic, that the main tactic governments used to discourage and punish people who took to the streets was detention, meaning that they often took people from open public spaces and locked them in closed and frequently overcrowded prisons, conditions that could only exacerbate the spread of the virus,” Civicus said.
“International mechanisms have consistently advised that any penalties applied to people who challenge restrictions should not contribute to the further spread of infections,” it added.
Activists in the Philippines claimed that there are at least two cases where rallyists may have contracted the disease while in detention:: first, when two of the six jeepney drivers detained after protesting the government’s ban on public transportation tested positive.
The other case involved a paralegal staffer who was arrested after he guarded the body of slain peace consultant Randall Echanis. Days after he was freed, he found out that he got the coronavirus.
Earlier, Civicus said that the Philippines’ civic spaces shrunk due to attacks against activists and the media. This meant that the country’s score went from “obstructed” in 2019 — the middle ground of Civicus’ five-point rating — to “repressed,” or just one level above the worst possible grade.
But while the ratings provide an outlook on how a country’s civic spaces appear — with ratings of “open” or the best score and “narrowed” indicating good performance and “obstructed,” “repressed,” and “closed” being bad signs — such scores did not matter regarding the repression of protests.
“The CIVICUS Monitor documented the detention of protesters and the use of excessive force to disperse and disrupt protests in countries with closed or repressed ratings […] but also in countries where people typically have been able to exercise their freedoms without major hindrance,” Civicus said.
“The detention of protesters was one of the main tactics used in countries classed as having open civic space,” it added.
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