COVID-19 and Civic Freedoms in Asia and the Pacific

An ICNL Asia-Pacific Program 2020 Survey

The ICNL-ECNL COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker launched in March 2020 to monitor government pandemic responses that affect civic freedoms and human rights. To get a full picture of how these measures have impacted civil society in the Asia-Pacific region, ICNL conducted a survey in December 2020 to assess government practices. We received responses from organizations in 14 countries across the region[1].

Scenes of healthcare workers at Thailand Bamrasnaradura Infectious Disease Institute, Ministry of Public Health. During this coronavirus outbreak, workforce shortages have gotten worse and nurse-midwives around the world have had to sacrifice in the hospitals around the clock and with limited personal protective equipment. (Photo: UN Women/Pathumporn Thongking)

GENERAL TRENDS

In general, respondents (87.8%) agreed that authorities have taken abusive and/or disproportionate emergency measures in response to COVID-19. They cited limited oversight on the scope and use of emergency measures, with only 19.5% noting the establishment of oversight bodies for COVID-19 policies.

Respondents also emphasized the effect on vulnerable groups, with 90.2% noting that COVID-19 restrictions disproportionately impact civic space for marginalized communities, including women, LGBTQ+ people, ethnic minorities, migrant workers, low-income people, people with disabilities, and human rights defenders.

Comments from Civil Society Representatives

Malaysia

“There is a clear double standard by authorities and government in overall COVID-19 management.”

Mongolia

“Government responses to COVID-19 have exposed the lack of capacity in managing and governing, including the lack of transparency…The Government has repeatedly blamed the people for recent outbreaks of COVID-19, using divisive language.”

Phillipines

“COVID-19 is primarily a health issue, but the Philippine government treats it as a defense issue. Response is through use of military and is not gender sensitive.”

Indonesia

“The government and its various cronies have been using the threat of COVID-19 to impose their own power-concentration and wealth accumulation agenda.”

FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION & RIGHT TO INFORMATION

Many Asian governments have restricted freedom of expression during the pandemic, including charging critics under “fake news” or disinformation laws. 75.6% of respondents found that authorities had arrested many people, particularly dissidents, human rights defenders, and civil society representatives, for criticizing the government response or sharing information related to COVID-19.

Access to information related to COVID-19 has also been restricted. 82.9% of respondents noted that authorities have restricted citizens, civil society, media organizations, and journalists from obtaining information related to the pandemic. Additionally, some governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to extend existing internet/network shutdowns or restrictions on journalists. Examples include the Philippines shutting down news networks or Myanmar extending the internet shutdown in Rakhine state.

FREEDOM OF ASSEMBLY

A majority of respondents (81.1%) agreed that authorities have unjustifiably and/or disproportionately restricted public gatherings on account of COVID-19.

Many governments in the region have used the pandemic to justify further securitizing their response to peaceful assemblies or gatherings, with numerous incidents of police and security force brutality while enforcing bans. Respondents (67.6%) confirmed this finding, noting that authorities used excessive force, deployed the military, or imposed excessive penalties in enforcing movement restriction orders.

Furthermore, 67.6% of respondents found that authorities had arbitrarily enforced the restriction on public gatherings, targeting minorities, activists, and/or journalists.

Comments from Civil Society Representatives

Hong Kong

“Rather than a public health measure, social distancing restrictions were used to limit civic space. Empowered by these restrictions, police have abused their power, banning any public gathering organized by anti-government protestors, and targeting activist groups’ premises. Since February [2020], attempts to get approvals for public gathering and assemblies have been unsuccessful.”

India

“Authorities have repeatedly denied permissions for holding protests and rallies, and have slapped notices on and repressed and detained people citing COVID-19 protocols…Restrictions on public gatherings have particularly been enforced arbitrarily during the farmers’ protests and Shaheen Bagh protests.”

Malaysia

“Police arrested and charged members of the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services for carrying out a peaceful protest against low wages and working conditions…Pro-government MPs and politicians violating COVID-19 restrictions have escaped punitive action or been treated relatively lightly compared to ordinary individuals.”

Pakistan

“Activists and civil society organizations are unable to protest or hold public gatherings because of government crackdowns.”

FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION

Civil society has faced multiple administrative barriers during COVID-19. 54% of respondents found that barriers (in law or in practice) to the registration of organizations have increased since the beginning of the pandemic, with 27% noting a significant increase. According to many respondents (65%), reporting requirements and other administrative burdens have also increased.

Additionally, barriers to cross-border and foreign funding have hindered the ability of organizations to respond effectively to COVID-19 and serve needy populations. Only 37.8% of respondents agreed that authorities have facilitated cross-border funding (e.g., providing rapid review, approval, and release of funds for emergency projects) during the pandemic. Conversely, 67% of respondents found that organizations have encountered more barriers impeding their ability to access funding, especially foreign funding, since the beginning of the pandemic.

Security and counterterrorism measures impeding freedom of association have also expanded. 78.4% of respondents witnessed an increase in security and counterterrorism-motivated restrictions affecting the sector during COVID-19, including fast-tracked national security laws and new anti-money laundering/counterterrorism-financing policies.

Comments from Civil Society Representatives

Hong Kong

“Authorities have been using anti-money laundering policies to target human rights defenders and activists.”

Indonesia

“During a period of stricter restrictions, only civil society organizations working on disaster and humanitarian issues were able to operate.”

RIGHT TO PRIVACY

In a region where surveillance is already a concern and privacy protections are limited, the development of overreaching tracking and tracing technologies is worrisome. Many respondents (67.6%) agreed that authorities have imposed or encouraged the use of COVID-19 contact tracing applications or other intrusive digital surveillance technology that raise privacy concerns.

PUBLIC PARTICIPATION

In many countries, the COVID-19 crisis is shifting power away from the legislature towards the executive branch, resulting in concerns around executive overreach. Respondents largely agreed (86.5%) that governments have used the pandemic to rush through laws and policies without having inclusive public debates.

Additionally, governments have often failed to enable participation by civil society throughout the pandemic. 51.3% of respondents found that authorities did not make efforts to facilitate civil society engagement and participation during the COVID-19 pandemic, including online.

ICNL will continue to track these trends around government responses to COVID-19 in Asia and their impact on civil society. For more information and updated laws, please visit the ICNL-ECNL COVID-19 Civic Freedom Tracker or the Asia COVID-19 Governance page.

[1]Survey countries are: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Fiji, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam.