Several African governments are using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse to crack down on the right to free speech and peaceful demonstration, Human Rights Watch has said in a report published on Thursday.
“Governments should counter Covid-19 by encouraging people to mask up, not shut up,” said Gerry Simpson from HRW.
Governments are targeting journalists, activists, healthcare workers and political opposition groups who criticise the response to the pandemic, the New York-based rights watchdog said.
COVID-19 is used to justify attacks against critics, as well as detentions or sometimes killings of those who disagree with their handling of the health crisis.
Quashing peaceful demonstrations
The virus has also been used as a pretext to break up protests, close media houses, and make vague laws that criminalise free speech.
In Uganda, security forces detained leading opposition figure Bobi Wine in November over allegedly breaking COVID-19 restrictions.
At least 16 people were killed in subsequent protests, the police said, as the authorities repressed opposition demonstrations – HRW said 54 people lost their lives.
Regional elections in Cameroon were the object of opposition protests in September, notably over concerns about holding polls despite the crisis in the country’s Anglophone regions.
The government decided to ban all public meetings and demonstrations, citing the danger of spreading Covid-19, but bars, restaurants, schools and places of worship all remained open.
Algeria banned demonstrations in March 2020, with the government saying it was in the interests of saving people’s lives.
This effectively muzzled a wave of mass demonstrations that had continued to push for change after forcing the resignation of veteran former leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika.
A journalist was beaten in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe by several police officers in January this year, when he asked for authorisation to photograph them enforcing COVID-19 measures.
The Committee to Protect Journalists said the Malawian reporter had seen police beating people for not wearing face masks and wanted to record the incident.
Zambian authorities pulled the licence of television station Prime TV in April last, offering vague reasons for taking the channel off air, although the outlet is known for being critical of the government and had been covering Lusaka’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed put in place a six-month state of emergency in April last year, as part of Covid-19 restrictions.
The measures clamped down on media reporting and included vague and undefined language, HRW said.
Egyptian authorities have detained people for criticising the government’s response to the novel coronavirus, jailing at least nine healthcare professionals last year with charges of spreading fake news.
Egypt also expelled a foreign journalist, revoking their accreditation in March for a report about the true extent of the outbreak, as COVID-19 was starting to grip countries around the world.
‘Respect human rights’
“Beating, detaining, prosecuting, and censoring peaceful critics violates many fundamental rights, including free speech, while doing nothing to stop the pandemic,” said Simpson, HRW’s associate crisis and conflict director.
HRW said at least 83 governments around the world have used COVID-19 as grounds to violate free speech rights. The rights watchdog is calling on the UN Human Rights Council to investigate states and whether they honour human rights in their response to the pandemic.
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