ICNL has identified 278 new measures by governments responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in 35 countries in Asia and the Pacific. These include legislative actions (passage of laws and regulations, orders/decrees), executive orders/decrees, and other practices that have not been codified, such as policies criminalizing the spread of information about COVID-19. We outline examples of measures being used to address COVID-19 that impact civic freedoms below.
Government Responses to COVID-19 in Asia and the Pacific
278 new measures
by governments responding to COVID-19.
have taken legislative action to address the coronavirus.
have either fully or partially prohibited gatherings.
Emergency Declarations and Assembly Bans
Many national and provincial governments in the region have enacted states of emergency, often issued as executive orders or proclamations. ICNL has counted 40 declarations of a state of emergency (including provincial issuances), national health emergency, or national disaster in 27 countries.
We have also recorded 125 other executive measures not arising to a state of emergency (including the prohibition of gatherings, imposing curfews, surveillance measures, and penalties for misinformation, among others). As expected due to the nature of the public health crisis around COVID-19, many of these measures heavily curb free movement and peaceful assembly, either outright banning all gatherings, or limiting gatherings to smaller crowds.
Other Civic Freedom Trends and Restrictions
Below are observable trends arising from governments’ responses to the pandemic, which have impacted the work of civil society and other stakeholders.
Limited oversight on scope and use of emergency measures
Many emergency measures that have been instituted in Asia-Pacific lack sunset clauses, or clear limitations of power in line with international standards requiring a proportionate, necessary, non-discriminatory, and time-limited approach to any derogations from fundamental rights in times of emergency. In the Philippines, for instance, President Duterte’s Proclamation No. 922 Declaring a State of Public Health Emergency Throughout the Philippines states that “the State of Public Health Emergency shall remain in force and effect until lifted or withdrawn by the President.” In India, many emergency measures are being taken under the Epidemic Diseases Act, a pre-independence, colonial law that provides expansive powers to the government, while others are not time-limited and do not have any clear grounding in law.
There is a concern that governments will extend restrictions on assembly and other derogations past the end of the public health crisis, or continue to expand authoritarian powers while restricting civic freedoms. (Many governments have also not communicated these derogations to the appropriate UN body, as required under international law.)
Securitization and Abuse of Force
Governments in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and elsewhere have seized upon the crisis to further securitize their response, including by deploying military forces and weapons technology to control civilian populations. In the Philippines, President Duterte appointed former military leaders to run the COVID response and issued shoot-to-kill orders of those violating lockdown measures.
ICNL has also recorded multiple cases of police and security force brutality in the name of enforcing gathering bans, including in India, China, the Philippines, Thailand, Fiji, Indonesia, and Nepal. In many countries, security forces have engaged in mass arrests and broken-up groups of people with excessive force, resulting in injuries and death. Often, those subject to abusive force are poor, migrant, or homeless populations with nowhere else to go.
Free Expression and Disinformation Restrictions
Instead of harnessing the power of technology to strengthen the response to the pandemic, at least 19 governments in the region have cracked down on speech and dissent through “fake news” or disinformation charges, often applied to those critical of the government’s response. Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Singapore, Solomon Islands, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam are among the countries in Asia using new and existing measures to suppress speech and penalize expression relating to COVID-19.
For instance, in Indonesia and Bangladesh, scores of individuals have been arrested under various IT and criminal laws for posting about coronavirus or criticizing the government’s response. Nepal and Myanmar have blocked numerous websites (including news portals), allegedly for “fake news” relating to coronavirus. Emergency measures in the Solomon Islands allow the executive to suspend access to media outlets that are found to publish and disseminate false information likely to create public alarm or threaten public peace and safety. Pakistan enacted new rules compelling social media companies to remove and block online content that contains false information threatening the public order, public health and public safety, or harm the reputation of the government. Even Taiwan, which has been held up as a model for its handling of COVID-19, warned people who spread false rumors that they would face up to three years in jail and a TW$3 million fine ($100,000).
Threats to Press Freedom and Right to Information
Press freedom has also become a collateral victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. Journalists in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal and Thailand have been subject to arrests, investigations and retaliatory lawsuits for objective or critical reporting. In Malaysia, at least one journalist and a media outlet have been summoned for questioning by the police for having reported on immigration actions taken by the Malaysian government. In India, tax authorities have raided two of the largest media outlets that were critical of the government’s response to COVID-19, allegedly as a retaliatory response to critical coverage.
Several instances of physical or verbal attacks against journalists and media organizations have also been reported. Indian journalists have been physically assaulted by the police and two Pakistani reporters were tortured by a paramilitary force for covering a protest against unsanitary conditions at a quarantine center on the Afghan border. Journalists in China, Thailand and Nepal reporting on COVID-19 have faced intimidation from authorities. Media organizations in Indonesia have been targets of digital attacks directed at critical coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In addition to concerns around self-censorship as a result of the criminalization of “fake news,” many governments have ramped up their efforts to censor information related to COVID-19. Journalists in India and Thailand have been pressured to only publish “positive” stories around COVID-19 responses. Thai authorities have been empowered to order journalists and media groups to “correct” reports deemed incorrect.
Access to information related to COVID-19 has also been restricted for journalists and media organizations. Japan has significantly limited the number of journalists authorized to attend government press conferences, additionally restricting the number of questions per journalist. The Bangladeshi government has barred public health officials from speaking to the media without prior permission. In Myanmar, journalists have been prevented from covering a vaccination drive for Myanmar’s Rohingya population in Rakhine State.
Increased Harassment of Vulnerable Communities, Minorities, and Activists
Governments have seized upon the COVID-19 crisis to clamp down on human rights defenders. Indonesia has arrested a prominent activist for alleged incitement after his phone was hacked, while India has arrested a number of high-profile human rights activists, including those involved in the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act and matters relating to Kashmir. China and Myanmar have arrested and prosecuted several individuals, including human rights defenders, who have criticized the government response to COVID-19 or shared information on COVID-19. Authorities in Myanmar, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Malaysia have used COVID-19 regulations as a pretext to silence critics, arresting pro-democracy protesters over social distancing violations and charging opposition politicians (in Myanmar’s case) with violations of coronavirus restrictions.
In addition, migrant workers and minority groups, for instance, Muslim populations in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and India, have been targeted through discriminatory campaigns attempting to blame them for the spread of COVID-19. Muslims in Sri Lanka have also been subject to discriminatory policies around forced cremation of COVID-19 victims. Migrant workers in Malaysia and the Maldives have faced mass arrests and deportation. In Malaysia, these arrests followed government assurances that migrant workers who came forward for COVID-19 testing ‘had nothing to fear.’
Surveillance and Privacy Concerns
In a region where surveillance is already a concern and privacy protections are limited, the development of various tracking and tracing technologies around COVID-19 has raised numerous concerns. Cambodia, Indonesia, and some provinces of the Philippines have instituted mandatory QR code scanning for entry into and exit from certain establishments. Pakistan is using a contact tracing system developed by its intelligence services originally to combat terrorism to track coronavirus infections. Hong Kong has relied on wristbands connected to smartphones to track quarantined individuals, with fines and jail terms for violators, while India has mandated the use of a government-created app (Aarogya Setu) that alerts people if any person in their vicinity has tested positive for COVID-19, using invasive Bluetooth and GPS technology. Recent reports indicate that provincial governments shared information from Aarogya Setu with police and law enforcement, including personal data from those who tested positive for COVID-19.
China’s mandatory smartphone app with its color-coded QR system has received significant attention for privacy infringements, as has China’s use of facial recognition technology and thermal scanners. Many people in China are concerned that the government will continue to use these tracking technologies, despite having contained the virus. Other countries, such as Japan, are implementing facial recognition technology at airports in order to facilitate ‘contactless’ boarding.
Countries such as India and China have used drones to monitor violations of lockdown measures. Cambodia disclosed the identity and personal information of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19 on social media. Singapore passed an amendment bill allowing data from contact tracing apps to be used by authorities for investigation and criminal proceedings in respect of a “serious offence.” Australia and South Korea have also implemented policies related to individuals’ data and movements that raise privacy concerns.
Limits on Public Participation
In general, the COVID-19 crisis is shifting power away from the legislature towards the executive branch, resulting in concerns around executive overreach. Access to justice issues due to court closures and limitations, and a resulting lack of judicial oversight, remain a problem. Governments have often failed to be transparent and to provide access to laws and emergency measures throughout the pandemic. As emergency measures are being implemented and State powers expanded, avenues for public comment, feedback, and participation are simultaneously being restricted, whether through the suspension of general elections during the state of emergency, as in Malaysia, or through the absence of any mechanism for online participation, as in India. In Indonesia, CSOs attempting to virtually join a public audience with parliament were ejected upon lodging a virtual protest. In Sri Lanka, the postponement of parliamentary elections and dissolution of Parliament has limited financial oversight over the executive branch.
Administrative Barriers, Shifting Narratives
Some governments, as in India with its “PM CARES” fund, have formed competing government institutions to receive COVID-19 donations. Although government efforts to address the crisis are necessary, such funds (often lacking in transparency) may siphon away resources from an already strained CSO sector trying to respond to the public health crisis.
Existing barriers around cross-border and foreign funding (as in Pakistan and India) have hindered the ability of CSOs to respond effectively to COVID-19 and marshal resources to serve needy populations, even as these governments reach out to CSOs to assist with the crisis. Meanwhile, damaging narratives against CSOs continue to be perpetuated, as in the Philippines, which has discouraged funding to CSOs and activists to address COVID-19, saying funds would only go to support terrorist or communist groups.
Government Pressure to Provide COVID-19 Aid
In its fight against the pandemic, some governments have issued directives for NGOs operating within their territory to help accommodate the government’s COVID-19 response objectives.
For example, a recent circular by the Bangladeshi NGO Affairs Bureau directed NGOs to include humanitarian aid for families affected by COVID-19 and to undertake projects to expand COVID-19 medical services. In Nepal, the government has asked national and international NGOs operating in Nepal to divert 5-20% of their funds for COVID-19-related programs.
Positive Government Practices
Despite the multitude of concerning measures implemented by governments in Asia-Pacific, a number of states have stood out not only in the region but globally for implementing positive regulatory measures around civic space during COVID-19. These include:
Reducing Barriers to Funding or Project Approval
- In Bangladesh, the NGO Affairs Bureau – responsible for the review of all foreign-funded projects implemented by CSOs formed a committee to provide rapid review, approval, and release of funds for COVID-19 emergency projects, with approvals issued via email and fund releases provided directly to banks.
- In Nepal, authorities also fast-tracked COVID-19 project approvals.
Providing for Government Oversight
- In the absence of a sitting parliament (that is, during ‘level 4’ of the government emergency), the Government of New Zealand created an oversight committee, headed by the leader of the opposition, and consisting of parliamentary members, to provide independent scrutiny of government measures. The oversight committee had the power to summon government officials and independent experts.
- In Australia, a pre-existing Senate committee – the Senate Standing Committee for the Scrutiny of Delegated Legislation – was empowered to scrutinize executive-made laws related to COVID-19 response measures.
- In Timor-Leste, government response to COVID-19 and the implementation of the state of emergency declaration were debated and examined during several parliamentary sessions.
- Taiwan, through the government’s daily press briefing, has provided meaningful opportunity for civil society input. Following criticism, the government has refined and adjusted its responsive measures.
Transparency and Access to Information
- Taiwan has made credible information widely available to the public and instituted daily press briefings and public service announcements by health officials.
- South Korea and Singapore have published regularly updated health data.
- New Zealand publishes information on the government’s response to COVID-19 through a government website, updated on a daily basis, and available in 28 languages.
Minimizing Government Detention of Persons
- In Indonesia, authorities have ordered the release of up to 36,000 prisoners.
- In the Philippines, the Chief Justice announced that over 80,000 prisoners have been released since March.
- In Myanmar, authorities have ordered the release of up to 25,000 prisoners in the largest prisoner release in years (which has, however, largely excluded human rights defenders and activists).
- In Thailand, authorities have ordered the release of up to 8,000 prisoners.
Safeguarding Free and Fair Elections
- In South Korea, elections for the National Assembly were conducted as scheduled in April 2020 with strict health and safety measures, including measures to facilitate voting from home and hospitals and others specifically aimed at permitting those infected with COVID-19 to vote.
Civil Society Organization Responses and Strategies to Restrictions
Amidst closures of civic space, including extensive bans on gatherings and assembly, CSOs have been actively engaged, not only in providing essential services and support in the fight against COVID-19 but in continuing to advocate for civic freedoms. Below are some examples of CSO responses and strategies to COVID-19 regulatory measures.
Monitoring and tracking threats
- Many CSOs are tracking COVID-19 regulatory issues at the national level, or using existing monitoring tools, such as the Fundamental Freedoms Monitoring Project in Cambodia model, to build an evidentiary base for advocacy efforts, and track restrictions related to COVID-19.
- Civil society networks in Pakistan and Nepal have been active in documenting COVID-19 regulations and their implementation.
- To get a full picture of how COVID-19 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.
- CSOs have engaged in online data collection and created platforms for civic action.
- In the Philippines and Sri Lanka, CSOs released legal analyses and Q&As on COVID-19 curfews and other government regulations.
- In the Philippines, CSOs have raised awareness around discrepancies in the government’s financial reporting or health data.
- In Bangladesh, 2000 CSOs convened a virtual press conference calling on the government to include CSOs as part of planning around COVID-19 responses.
- CSOs in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Cambodia are raising awareness through public statements of problematic emergency laws, COVID-19 practices, and digital security acts and challenging these policies through petitions and other measures.
- CSOs in India and Malaysia have made media statements and press releases highlighting rights violations of migrants and other civic space concerns.
- CSOs have also worked closely with governments and engaged in dialogue to attempt to lift funding barriers to civil society, provide training on emergency measures, and help coordinate the COVID-19 response in Pakistan, India, and other countries in the region.
- CSOs are making submissions to international bodies, including Special Rapporteurs and the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR), concerning COVID-19 actions undertaken by states.
- In light of the restrictions imposed by the 2020 amendments to the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA), efforts are underway in India to highlight the critical role of civil society in disease and disaster response, including its importance in providing services, equipment, and other essential tasks throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
- Civil society organizations in Nepal, Malaysia, India, Thailand, and the Philippines have lodged petitions and challenges with national courts around border quarantines, relief distribution, internet shutdowns or access limitations, media restrictions, equality of sentencing for movement violations, the release of vulnerable detainees, activist arrests, or government reporting. Some of these cases have been successful, resulting in the release and transfer of quarantined people at the Nepal-India border, and the release of detainees in the Philippines and the revocation of an Order that censors online expression.
Other Areas for Consideration
As the pandemic continues, we expect to see even greater impacts in the following areas:
- On migrant worker populations, IDPs, refugees, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable communities. As many countries in the region and globally explore the possibility of “vaccine passports,” individuals from these vulnerable communities may face increased barriers to movement and civic participation ensuing from a lack of access to COVID-19 vaccines, as well as heightened risks from the disease itself and discriminatory policies;
- On democratic processes and elections. Multiple parliaments in the region are not sitting or are suspended, and some governments have been taking advantage of situation to pursue their political advantage;
- On poverty and economic development, as well as bilateral aid and investment flows, straining scarce resources and putting increased pressure on CSOs to respond to worsening conditions.
- Joint Statement from South Asian Civil Society Organizations
- Press Release on COVID-19 by the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights
- Shrinking Civic Space Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic in Indonesia, a Lokataru Foundation report
- The Human Rights Dimensions of the COVID-19 Pandemic, a brief by the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific of the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR)