A bus passenger with a face mask on.
For many of us, the reality of COVID-19 went from being a distant tremble on the horizon to a full-on earthquake, in very little time.
As a global human rights network, our first thought here at IFEX was to reach out to member organisations – over 100, in over 60 different countries. We asked: How are you? How is this affecting you? What are your priorities now, in the face of all this?
Their advice: Don’t take your eyes off the ball.
They know what they’re talking about. Time and again, they have seen supposedly time-limited emergency measures that bypass human rights become entrenched as the very laws they need to fight, years after an emergency has passed.
This makes them understandably wary and watchful that hard-won gains for press freedom, access to information, and freedom of expression will be suspended and even lost, with little or no oversight, due to the crisis.
Their warning is even more compelling in conjunction with the other single most resonant message we heard from them: It isn’t just that we need to defend these rights despite the health crisis; these rights are essential to people’s efforts to tackle it, and survive it.
So they are even more concerned to see the spread of COVID-19 accompanied by a surge in misinformation, disinformation, and, in some countries, government censorship, at a time when access to factual and timely information has never been so important.
Despite efforts to provide timely fact-checking and some form of responsible content moderation, it is much easier to spread misinformation than to counter it. The lie goes viral; the correction generally does not.
The problem is exacerbated by some world leaders who are exploiting this crisis and the elevated platform it gives them to ramp up their rhetoric vilifying the media – sowing confusion and distrust among people already reeling from the pandemic and hungry for answers.
And this at a time when the physical safety of journalists reporting on the pandemic is further being endangered by exposure to the virus without the necessary precautions.
In addition, members tell us that hard-won privacy rights are being tossed aside, as pre-existing constraints on the use of surveillance technology are relaxed to track the spread of the disease and enforce quarantine laws. There is an uptick in legislation being used to silence activists and government critics on social media. And in ways that touch us all, the pandemic is endangering the health of civil society at a time when a social safety net is more vital than ever.
We know that extraordinary measures are a necessary companion to these extraordinary times. Protecting people’s health and safety are paramount. But that doesn’t take away our responsibility to ensure that, down the road, such exceptional measures do not become the new rule of law.
That is why the work of defending human rights must never flag as this crisis develops. While our programming is naturally affected by necessary constraints on travel and physical meetings, human rights work is never done in isolation. It is rooted in personal connections based on mutual understanding, respect, and trust. We will continue to find ways to nurture the connections and solidarity this work requires.
Finding engaging ways to collaborate on projects and campaigns, to participate in critical national, regional and international advocacy efforts, or to exchange knowledge and skills – it’s always been a challenge, but already we are all discovering new approaches to keep our relationships strong, and active.
It takes much longer to build something than to knock it down; this is true of our human rights, as well.
We will keep our eyes on the ball. Freedom of expression and access to information are so important. We will remain vigilant in the defence of civil society and its essential work promoting and defending these rights. After all – our actions now do not just shape the world we are in, they shape the world we will all be living in once this crisis passes.
Annie Game is the Executive Director of IFEX, the global network of organisations promoting and defending freedom of expression.