Inside Expression: August 2020 – How do you protest against injustice during a pandemic?

Inside Expression: August 2020 – How do you protest against injustice during a pandemic? - Civic Space


Iconic acts of resistance such as the 1963 March on Washington and the Stonewall riots, Gandhi’s Salt March, Tiananmen Square and the Arab Spring, have shaped the world we live in today. But what happens to the crucial right to protest during a pandemic? What happens when the requirement to physically distance to stay safe, conflicts with the urgent need for change and government tactics to repress dissent?

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We can no longer protest like it’s… 2019

Last year was a year when public demonstrations swept the globe.  We saw them take place, from Chile to the Czech Republic, Hong Kong to Hungary, India to Iran, Spain to Sudan. They covered numerous issues and affected every age group.  Extinction Rebellion forced people to confront climate change. Children walked out of school and demanded that their elders do something about it.

What the New York Times dubbed a ‘tsunami of protests‘ may have been a feature of 2020 were it not for coronavirus. As the outbreak spread around the world, States began to put in place emergency measures restricting the right to protest and their impact varied from country to country: some limited the number of people allowed to gather, or demanded social distancing rules were followed. Others imposed complete bans. But one thing seemed certain: demonstrations of the size and intensity of 2019 could no longer take place.

Yet the issues haven’t gone away

As we have seen in recent days, huge anti-government protests in Belarus and in Beirut are indicative of catastrophic government failures: failure to listen, failure to protect, and the failure to deliver positive change for citizens.

Inaction and repression have been the responses to protest of many governments.  We have seen the security law that drove millions out to protest in Hong Kong is already being used to arrest hundreds of activists. And while protestors in Algeria succeeded in forcing the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in April 2019 their demands for deeper political change have not yet been met.

Governments’ responses to the pandemic have in themselves been a cause for social unrest and dissent. Six of the 16 protests that have taken place in Kenya since April were against police brutality over the enforcement of the country’s coronavirus curfew – which ARTICLE 19 has been speaking out about on social media via #FreeToProtest. In India, migrant workers left stranded after lockdown was imposed with only four hours notice, demanded that they be allowed to return home rather than face starvation. In many countries, including Germany, protestors have demanded an end to lockdown restrictions.

In fact, the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on those who already face injustice. Racism, discrimination and social inequality contribute to an increased risk of death from coronavirus, to being more likely to be stopped for breaking restrictions, and to suffering more from the economic impact of lockdown. Coronavirus has highlighted and exacerbated these inequalities, and governments must enable people to use their fundamental right to protest to fight for justice on all fronts.

Challenging Racism: too important not to protest

The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25th ignited global demonstrations against racism. As shocking footage of police officers kneeling on Floyd’s neck went viral, protests broke out in Minneapolis, then across the US, and around the world.

Questions were raised about a possible spike in coronavirus cases due to difficulties to maintain social distancing during large protests. Protest banners stating, ‘racism is a pandemic too’ highlighted the fact that many protestors felt the issue was too important not to protest.  They balanced the risk to their health with the risk of severe inequality in order to demand justice.

Almost three months later, anti-racist protests are still taking place in the US, where the police and authorities have been criticised for violent tactics, which have included the use of pepper bullets, rubber bullets, tear gas, and pepper spray against both demonstrators and journalists.

Covid-19 must not be an excuse for repression 

States must not use coronavirus as an excuse for excessive force or to close down dissent or opposition without justification. In countries like Kenya, the pandemic is being used to perpetuate ongoing attacks on the right to protest, which have seen peaceful demonstrators being arbitrarily arrested over the last couple of years. In Thailand, emergency coronavirus measures have been used to target government critics. At least 25 people involved in peaceful protests have been charged with alleged violations of the emergency regulations.

Repressive tactics could actually increase health risks. Public health scientists in the US have said that close contact by the police and the use of tear gas and pepper spray could spread the virus during protests. Governments have a responsibility to protect and facilitate our right to protest. During a pandemic, the authorities could do this by issuing guidance, for example around masks or social distancing, that will enable people to protest more safely.

Tactical disruptions of the Internet have been misused 

In normal circumstances, shutdowns are a disproportionate measure that undisputably violate human rights.  Disruptions affect people’s ability to access health information and medical care online, connect with family and friends, and earn a living.  States must ensure that people can access information freely at all times, however the shutdowns have become an increasingly common response to public displays of dissent. They make it harder to organise protests, prevent people from learning about them and limit how widely footage of, for example, police violence can be shared.

One of the recent examples is in India where the authorities have shut down the internet in Jammu and Kashmir since August 2019, despite the Supreme Court declaring that access to the internet is a fundamental right. This has left people unable to access any news or health information, and unable to connect with family and friends throughout the pandemic.

Shutdowns are also used to restrict online activity and to prevent people from communicating with each other, accessing and sharing information online. The Iranian authorities are suspected of disrupting internet access in response to the #DoNotExecute online protest by Iranians outraged at three young men being given death sentences in relation to Iran’s November 2019 demonstrations. It is still not clear whether these disruptions were deliberate, but we know that since the week-long shutdown in November 2019, disruptions happen almost every time Iranians protest.

Tech companies should respect the right to protest 

As with many things during lockdown, protests have shifted online, such as the use of the #NoToExecution hashtag by Iranians inside and out of Iran.  While this can overcome the physical barriers to protest, it also means that they can be undermined by tech companies who still lack transparency when it comes to content moderation and takedowns. This means that they have the power to restrict protest both online and offline and undermine campaigns.

ARTICLE 19 has been calling for tech companies to develop their policies that reflect human rights principles aimed to prevent restrictions on users’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Now is the time for all governments to uphold our right to protest 

After many years of advocacy, in July the UN Human Rights Committee adopted General Comment No. 37 on the right to peaceful assembly. We expect governments to uphold this right.  This is why it is important:

The right to protest allows us to hold those in power accountable, challenge oppression and collectively demand fairness and equality for all. People from all walks of life can come together to demand change, just as we’ve done before for independence, marriage equality and the right to vote.

Most of the democratic gains we have today are because people refused to accept things as they were and demanded something better. The massacre at Peterloo in Lancashire, England on Monday 16 August 1819 did not stop the demand for suffrage. Using tanks to mow down unarmed students in Tiananmen Square did not end dissent in China. No matter how governments try to suppress protests through force and violence, people still fight for justice.

The pandemic has magnified existing inequalities across the world and shown how injustices are deeply linked. If anything, we the people need to be able to stand together for justice, now more than ever before.  Governments must respect, protect and enable the right to protest. Instead of preventing us from uniting, we need our leaders to start addressing the deep inequalities in our societies so that we can all live healthier, fairer, more equal lives.

And finally…

The WHO warned of an infodemic as a result of coronavirus around the world.  Mis-information about its spread, its origin, its cures are rife, and well-organised especially on social media.  Next month, we will take a closer look at misinformation and expression.  Until next time.


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