Coronavirus, Coronavirus Human Rights, Coronavirus İn Hungary, Coronavirus İn China, Coronavirus İn Philippines, Coronavirus İn Serbia, Coronavirus İn Russia, Coronavirus İn Cambodia, Coronavirus İn Myanmar, Coronavirus Trump

Coronavirus, Coronavirus Human Rights

How the coronavirus pandemic is making strongmen stronger, from Hungary to Serbia to the Philippines

How the coronavirus pandemic is making strongmen stronger, from Hungary to Serbia to the Philippines

2020-04-07 3:20:00 AM

How the coronavirus pandemic is making strongmen stronger, from Hungary to Serbia to the Philippines

Coronavirus coups’ that allow military force and rule by decree have raised alarms about how human rights are being balanced against the risks posed by COVID-19

In Hungary, a new law has made it an offence to publish “misinformation” about the government’s pandemic-control efforts. In Zimbabwe, the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa has authorized 20-year prison terms for anyone who publishes or communicates “false news” about any police officer or government official who is involved in enforcing the national lockdown.

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Human-rights groups have warned that such laws are so vague and excessive that they allow the government to silence journalists or social-media voices.Young Buddhist monks wear masks in Yangon, Myanmar, one of the Asian nations where restrictions on media have intensified during the pandemic.

SAI AUNG MAIN/AFP via Getty ImagesA similar crackdown on media is also unfolding across much of Asia. While Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts to force Indian media to publish only the government’s version of the pandemic fight was rejected by the Supreme Court, many of India’s neighbours lack such checks on power.

In the past week, authorities in Myanmar have blocked access to 221 news websites, saying they carried “fake news.” At least six journalists have been arrested or have fled.“The Myanmar military is taking advantage because of COVID-19,” Hline Thit Zin Wai, one of the journalists on the run, told The Globe in a conversation through an encrypted messaging app. “The virus has destroyed the partial democracy in our country. The fact that journalists are running and hiding – it means that press freedom has also collapsed.”

In the Philippines, an emergency law came into force March 24 outlawing virus-related information that may cause “chaos, panic, anarchy, fear, or confusion.” The country’s National Bureau of Investigation has since issued subpoenas to at least 17 people, including two journalists, accusing them of distributing “fake news.”

Even before the pandemic, “we were already witnessing, one by one, deliberate attacks on the democratic institutions that are supposed to serve as checks and balances,” said Chel Diokno, a prominent human-rights lawyer and founding dean of the College of Law at De La Salle University in Manila. Now the concern is that the pandemic “will result in more repressive measures imposed by the government in an attempt to keep order.”

In Thailand, where military rule has already scrubbed local media of much dissent, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has assumed the power “to censor or shut down media if deemed necessary,” according to a government decree. Cambodian authorities have arrested more than a dozen people for sharing pandemic information, four of them people aligned with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which has been formally dissolved.

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Story continues below advertisementThai military police and police officers wearing protective masks question people at a checkpoint in Bangkok on April 3 after a curfew was imposed.Athit Perawongmetha/ReutersChinese soldiers wear protective masks at the People's Square in Shanghai on April 4.

Yifan Ding/Getty ImagesIn China, meanwhile, hundreds of people have been arrested for online comments, while governments and companies alike have made the use of cellphone apps and other tracking tools mandatory, expanding the country’s already-sophisticated surveillance state. Similar tracking technologies have been deployed by governments around the world, both authoritarian and democratic.

Hong Kong, which until the crisis had been the scene of regular protests calling for greater autonomy from China, has been under particular pressure. In February, police arrested Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media tycoon despised by Beijing, and several other top democracy figures, accusing them of participating in an illegal assembly last summer. An outspoken nationalist lawmaker has pushed for the passing of national security laws that would prohibit treason, “subversion against the Central People’s Government” or ties with foreign political entities. His timing has historical resonance: A previous attempt to enact such laws in 2003 failed amid the SARS crisis.

This time, “some people in the pro-Beijing camp may think that it is a good time to try to take very harsh measures because the world, especially those countries which may support Hong Kong, are now very preoccupied with their own problems,” said Emily Lau, a pro-democracy politician in Hong Kong.

There is a tendency among governments “to respond to this crisis in the one way they know how, which is by tightening control,” said Sebastian Strangio, an author and scholar who studies Southeast Asia.Another recurring theme has seen authoritarian leaders use this moment to push through legislation persecuting LGBTQ citizens. One day after Mr. Orban gained his rule-by-decree powers, his government submitted a bill that would make it illegal to change a person’s gender. In Uganda, where the government of President Yoweri Museveni has a long history of persecuting gay people, police arrested 23 members of the LGBTQ community at a shelter in late March, accusing them of violating rules on social distancing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via APOne authoritarian leader who has not benefited from the crisis is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was forced to postpone an April referendum on constitutional changes that would have allowed him to remain in power for another 16 years. Even more remarkably, the Kremlin’s wobbly handling of the crisis has allowed alternate centres of power – primarily Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin, who has often moved faster than the Kremlin in taking steps to deal with the pandemic – to emerge in Russia for the first time since early in Mr. Putin’s two-decade-long rule.

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Story continues below advertisementWhile authoritarianism is on the rise around the world at the moment, some believe the limits of top-down government will be exposed as the crisis unfolds.“Ultimately, the pandemic is going to lead to a severe economic crisis, and that, more than the pandemic itself, is likely to challenge regimes,” said Steven Levitsky, a professor of government at Harvard University. “But that works both ways. Weak democracies that fare poorly could get into trouble, but poorly performing autocrats will also face trouble.“

Mr. Stefanovic, the Serbian opposition politician, pointed to the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl and how the Soviet Union’s obsession with controlling information sparked protests that eventually brought the entire system crashing down.“It’s going to backfire on them,” Mr. Stefanovic predicted. “When you control everything, you are to blame for everything.”

With reports from Geoffrey York in JohannesburgCoronavirus: The global pictureSources: GOVERNMENT WEBSITES, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO AND JOHNS HOPKINS UNIVERSITY Read more: The Globe and Mail »

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