Freedom and Democracy Under Attack in Times of Coronavirus
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
The deadly global COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has focused all countries primarily on saving lives and preserving economies. Countries are taking actions constrained by their health and economic capacities. For the most part, the actions taken by each country to meet these challenges adhere to their respective constitutional and statutory limitations. Others make statutory changes in compliance with their constitutions and issue new regulations to deal with the pandemic within the boundaries of existing legal constraints.
Autocratic leaders under the guise of dealing with coronavirus, have seized on the pandemic to advance their powers and further suppress their populations. We should not be surprised by this abuse of power. The issue is what can be done to reverse this trend. Autocratic leaders are in the minority and their actions generally do not spark widespread external condemnation. There may be some exceptions to the general silence in the face of these actions with which the international community will be forced to grapple. In particular, the UN Security Council will be forced to take action to rescue democracy in these countries.
The recent action by the parliament of Hungary to give prime minister Viktor Orban unlimited emergency powers for an indefinite period of time is perhaps the most egregious action taken by any government to date. By this action, the parliament, over which the prime minister has a two-thirds majority control, empowered Orban to rule by decree. Orban now has the power to suspend laws, and, with the parliament closed, there are no checks on his power. Also, of grave concern is the action taken to call off all future elections. Furthermore, the parliament provided a five year prison sentence for anyone spreading false information about the coronavirus. Orban’s power to determine which information is false poses significant constraints on the press, and is a major threat to press freedom in Hungary. This is a stark reminder that a free press remains a bastion to autocratic rule in democratic societies everywhere.
Another example of an autocratic response in an otherwise democratic country, is being played out in Israel. According to a recent headline on Israel’s Haaretz online edition, “Netanyahu Has Hijacked Israel’s Coronavirus Response, Sidelining Top Health Experts.” The report provides an example of how a political leader is using the coronavirus pandemic to advance his political fortunes. It suggests that a flawed decision-making process is endangering the lives of Israeli citizens. Netanyahu has also tied his political fortunes to promises he made during the recent election campaign. He promised to annex Palestinian territory and the Trump administration’s proposal gives him the imprimatur to annex 30% of the West Bank.
Aided and abetted by the Trump administration there is grave concern in the international community that Netanyahu may use the coronavirus as a means to achieve his objective. Pre-occupied with the threat democratic, freedom-loving governments around the world face from the pandemic, Netanyahu just might attempt to take this as far as he wishes without any meaningful international response. Action in the UN Security Council will be blocked by a US veto and the European Union now in disarray from Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic will be unable to act concertedly. Thus, Netanyahu will ignore international norms and law and act with impunity
Another reason freedom-loving people around the world should be concerned is a trend I have observed in recent years of creeping autocratic tendencies among leaders of otherwise democratic and rule of law countries, including in the Americas. Autocratic-leaning political leaders often use emergency powers in times of crises to consolidate their powers. Because such leaders are usually in control of the majority of votes in their parliaments, the only constraint in most cases is an activist civil society bolstered by a free press. The latter is indispensable. And, whenever we see political leaders attacking the press we should take notice and defend press freedom.
We tend to believe autocratic-leaning governments are in the minority but that is not the case. In responding to crises, governments are usually allowed access to increased powers. It is at such times that political leaders are most vulnerable to their innate tendencies. It is also the time when civil society and the free press must be most vigilant. It’s a lot to expect under certain circumstances, but it is an imperative for maintaining our freedoms, including democratic freedom.
Already severely pressured by the existential health and economic threats to individual and collective survival from the COVID-19 pandemic, populations in some countries find themselves subject to threats to their freedoms imposed by autocratic and autocratic-leaning governments. It is inevitable, that without an educated and well-informed populace, these governments will use the coronavirus pandemic to advance their hold on power; by abandoning democratic norms and rule of law; and impose draconian constraints on their populations which could become permanent.
In the past three plus years, there has been unprecedented attacks on the free press in the US, the bastion of US democracy. The freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution and, even when segments of American media corruptly ignore their responsibilities for partisan short-term gain, the majority of the press can be relied on to adhere to their responsibilities and seek to report the truth. Discrimination against the press and attempts at constraints of press freedom in strong democracies such as the United States, while troubling, will survive attempts to curb press freedom, and democracy will be secured. A similar situation does not necessarily exist in smaller countries, especially in nascent democracies with less developed democratic institutions and strict adherence to rule of law.
This brings me to my admonition to civil society and the free press in the Caribbean and the rest of the Americas. While we must be sensitive to the need for governments to take extraordinary actions to defeat the COVID-19 coronavirus, we cannot abdicate our respective responsibilities to ensure that government leaders are acting in the public interest and not in their own political interests. That’s the only option we have to protect our freedoms post-COVID-19.
© 2020 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post