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DemocracyWatch: Pandemic power grabs all over the world

Sign up for our weekly email round-up of attacks on democracy during the coronavirus crisis.

8 April 2020
Long running protests against anti-Muslim citizenship laws in New Delhi have been broken up under coronavirus laws
Long running protests against anti-Muslim citizenship laws in New Delhi have been broken up under coronavirus laws
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Sanjeev Yadav/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0. Some rights reserved.

The coronavirus pandemic is not just changing how we live and work – it is also changing who has power and how they can use it.

Research from openDemocracy this week shows that more than 2 billion people live in countries whose parliaments have been suspended or restricted following the outbreak of coronavirus. 

Serbia, Turkey, Romania, Mongolia, Thailand, the Philippines, Zimbabwe and Morocco are just some of the countries that have detained journalists or enacted measures that could stifle reporting.

The crisis has led to unprecedented use of surveillance across the world, police violence disproportionately targeted at minorities in many places, and an outpouring of disinformation and propaganda.

openDemocracy and Source Material are tracking how the coronavirus crisis is affecting democracy across the world. Working with partners including Privacy International, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue and COVID19 Emergency Watch, we’re tracking the pandemic’s impact on civil rights and the environment.

Each week we’re sending this email newsletter on how governments are suspending civil rights, rolling back hard-won freedoms and undermining the fight against climate change. You can read this week’s bulletin below and send us any news for our next update at [email protected].

To receive our weekly email, sign up below: as this crisis develops, we’re going to need many eyes on what our governments are up to. 

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Europe

  • Slovakia The army will enter Roma settlements to test everyone in them and force anyone who tests positive into government-run facilities, prime minister Igor Matovič announced. Authorities in Romania and Bulgaria also introduced restrictions on Roma communities, sometimes using force.
  • Bulgaria Parliament voted to grant the military power to use force to restrict movement of the population.
  • UK The first person charged by police under new coronavirus laws had her charges quashed. Police were accused of misusing their powers by forcing reporters off a protest site. Counter-terrorism police are investigating far-right groups accused of using the crisis to stoke anti-Muslim sentiment. Palantir, a Silicon Valley data analytics company founded by Trump supporter Peter Thiel with funding from the CIA, is providing authorities in a dozen countries, including the UK’s NHS, with software. Open Rights Group in the UK called on the NHS to explain the role of the surveillance company.
  • Italy The pandemic has made it much harder for women to access abortions, reports openDemocracy. Russian aid to Italy appears to have been a Kremlin Trojan Horse influence campaign.
  • Turkey The government fined three TV channels and detained or summoned for questioning at least eight journalists about their coronavirus reporting in March. Doctors who urged stricter containment measures have issued apologies after one was arrested.
  • Poland A quarantine enforcement app will be mandatory for those potentially infected, Politico reported, describing the technology as ‘the most advanced effort yet’.
  • France A five-year-old girl was seriously wounded after apparently being hit on the head by a police rubber bullet in a clash with youths on a Paris housing estate. NGOs have reported apparent widespread police violence. The government is preparing to track individuals’ mobile phones.
  • Slovenia The government used the emergency to bypass tender rules and award opaque contracts worth €80 million, including a €25 million deal for protective equipment to a gambling mogul with no healthcare experience.
  • Georgia A coronavirus tracking app will be available by the end of the next week, the deputy health minister said. A new judge was appointed to the constitutional court despite calls to postpone the selection until the state of emergency is lifted.
  • Romania The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe warned against undue restriction of the media following an emergency decree which allows removal of reports and entire websites without appeal.
  • Albania Emigrants returning from Greece have been denied entry and are stuck in no man’s land between borders.

Asia

Africa

  • South Africa Two doctors in Limpopo who were already self-isolating were forcibly quarantined in hospital after an official accused them of bringing the virus into the province, openDemocracy’s Kerry Cullinan reported in the Daily Maverick. The government has issued a substantial rewrite of a controversial proposal to track people using their phones and other devices in the bid to contain COVID-19.
  • Angola More than 1,000 people have been detained for entering the country after the borders closed and a further 189 for violating other emergency laws, according to interior minister Eugénio Laborinho.
  • Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi proposed extending the state of emergency in the country to last six months.
  • Zimbabwe Police arrested journalist Kudzanai Musengi for allegedly practising without valid accreditation and arrested nearly 2,000 people for defying lockdown laws.
  • Nigeria A soldier shot a man dead for allegedly flouting the lockdown.
  • Uganda Police raided an LGBTQI shelter, arrested 23 youths for “a negligent act likely to spread infection” and searched for ‘evidence of homosexuality’, punishable by a maximum life sentence.
  • Burundi Controversial presidential elections scheduled for next month are planned to go ahead despite the coronavirus pandemic, while aid groups have been blocked from “unsanitary“ quarantine sites.

Middle East

  • Saudi Arabia A 3pm curfew is in force in Riyadh.
  • Morocco Security services said they had arrested 8,530 people for violating containment measures and 82 for spreading fake news, including a woman who used her YouTube channel to say the virus did not exist. The government approved draft social media laws that rights groups say are part of a growing crackdown on free speech. From next week, people leaving their homes without a mask risk jail.
  • Jordan More than 1,600 have so far been arrested for breaking one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, which bans even walks or allowing pets outdoors. The military sealed off the city of Irbid, previously a centre of pro-democracy protests.
  • Lebanon A general military mobilisation is being used to enforce the lockdown, with army helicopters hovering over the capital, Beirut.
  • Tunisia President Elyes Fakhfakh (who heads a coalition despite coming last in the October 2019 election) has been granted power to rule by decree for sixty days.

Americas

  • Mexico The government suspended time limits for responding to citizen’s requests for access to personal data.
  • US Two rights groups filed a lawsuit seeking the immediate release of people held at three immigrant detention centres in Georgia, saying they are at increased risk of contracting the virus. A growing number of states are using coronavirus to effectively ban abortion by restricting elective procedures and putting terminations in that category. The Democratic Party primary in Wisconsin went ahead despite polling place closures and mass self-isolation, after Republicans blocked a delay.
  • Honduras Authorities said about 2,250 people have been arrested for violating a curfew imposed in mid-March.
  • Guatemala Authorities said 5,705 people had been detained for leaving their homes without justification.
  • Panama More than 5,000 people have been detained for violating curfew rules. Another 424 were detained for not complying with rules that require men and women to leave the house on alternate days, The Guardian reported.
  • Peru A ‘police protection’ law has been enacted, exempting officers and soldiers from criminal responsibility for deaths or injuries caused during the state of emergency.
  • El Salvador 712 people have been detained for failing to comply with the mandatory home quarantine decreed by President Nayib Bukele, and have been taken to containment centres.
  • Jamaica Prime Minister Andrew Holness told the House of Representatives that efforts to combat COVID-19 would be “greatly assisted” by a mandatory biometric national ID system. Jamaica’s supreme court ruled last year this would violate the right to privacy and was unconstitutional.

Climate

  • Australia Farmers in Victoria called the state government's decision to reinstate onshore gas exploration during the coronavirus state of emergency “calculated” and “sneaky”, ABC reported.
  • Georgia More than twenty planned infrastructure projects will continue without public consultations following emergency legislation restricting environmental safeguards during the emergency, a measure explicitly forbidden by the constitution.
  • EU Farming lobbyists are exploiting the crisis to push for delays to environmental legislation, abgeordnetenwatch reported.
  • Japan is accused of having published its new climate goals which are rated as “highly insufficient” amid the global pandemic to avoid scrutiny, reports The Guardian.
  • Airlines The International Air Transport Association is lobbying for a global agreement on carbon emissions to be loosened because of the pandemic. Airlines are supposed to reduce their emissions for future years against a baseline set in 2019-20, according to a International Civil Aviation Organization agreement.

Good news

  • Germany The country’s green energy shift is in line for a boost from a coronavirus stimulus package that helps the economy move towards climate neutrality, Bloomberg reported, citing the finance minister, Olaf Scholz. Plans could include faster build-out of electric car infrastructure, lifting the cap on solar power subsidies and subsidised shifts to cleaner fuels like hydrogen.
  • Uganda The government backtracked and recognised journalists as key workers after protesting when initial containment measures did not exclude them from a 7pm curfew.

Stop the secrecy: Publish the NHS COVID data deals


To: Matt Hancock, Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We’re calling on you to immediately release details of the secret NHS data deals struck with private companies, to deliver the NHS COVID-19 datastore.

We, the public, deserve to know exactly how our personal information has been traded in this ‘unprecedented’ deal with US tech giants like Google, and firms linked to Donald Trump (Palantir) and Vote Leave (Faculty AI).

The COVID-19 datastore will hold private, personal information about every single one of us who relies on the NHS. We don’t want our personal data falling into the wrong hands.

And we don’t want private companies – many with poor reputations for protecting privacy – using it for their own commercial purposes, or to undermine the NHS.

The datastore could be an important tool in tackling the pandemic. But for it to be a success, the public has to be able to trust it.

Today, we urgently call on you to publish all the data-sharing agreements, data-impact assessments, and details of how the private companies stand to profit from their involvement.

The NHS is a precious public institution. Any involvement from private companies should be open to public scrutiny and debate. We need more transparency during this pandemic – not less.


By adding my name to this campaign, I authorise openDemocracy and Foxglove to keep me updated about their important work.

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