In late December, only a few hundred people knew of COVID-19. Now it’s March—just 90 days later—and much of the world has had to learn about and adapt and respond to the deadly disease. Though the highly contagious virus seems impossible to ignore today, it’s in part thanks to whistleblowers and critics around the world sharing warnings and information that some governments responded to the pandemic when they did.
Even dissenting voices are critical when the literal health of millions is at stake.
But even now, different governments are handling the crisis in a spectrum of ways: within the U.S., individual states have taken extraordinarily diverse approaches to controlling its spread, some nearly dismissing it, others implementing strict quarantine measures. And rather than highlighting the need for increased transparency, some governments are using this as an opportunity to curb freedom of the press, limiting what can be reported, or putting out competing stories meant to shift the narrative away from the dangers of the disease or criticisms of their official response.
It’s rarely been more important for individuals to be able to speak out and share information with one another online than in this moment. In a crisis—especially under authoritarian regimes, and in the absence of a trustworthy press—free expression is critical for people to engage with one another. Under governments that dismiss or distort scientific data, it may even be life saving.
Governments Misuse Crisis to Crack Down and Expand Laws
But as individuals comment on how officials are handling the situation—either to praise, critique, or ask questions—and people share potentially critical experiences and information with one another, some countries are using the opportunity to crack down dangerously on free speech.
Dr. Li Wenliang, the Chinese physician who warned colleagues of the deadly and contagious new virus in late December via a private WeChat message, has gained notoriety as a whistleblower. He was quickly accused by government officials of illegally posting rumors online when screenshots from his private messages were shared on public forums, which became the first place many heard of the virus. Li signed a police statement agreeing to cease spreading misinformation, and a few weeks later he passed away due to complications from having contracted coronavirus himself.
Li’s warnings likely saved lives: his colleagues shared his message, which helped force officials into action. He has since been called a hero, and authorities have admitted to mishandling his case. But Li was not alone: seven other Chinese medical professionals blew the whistle about coronavirus early on.
Since then, hundreds more have been arrested by the “Internet police” in China for commenting about the situation online. Others have been arrested around the world for posting comments about the virus or for protesting government reactions to it. The governments of Cambodia, Malaysia, Palestine, Thailand, and Indonesia have all arrested individuals for spreading “misinformation.” Many arrested were activists.
Singaporean officials are using the outbreak to justify legislation which gives new powers to limit “fake news” far beyond the scope of potential dangers to public health. In Morocco, individuals have been arrested for critiquing restrictions on public gatherings, and government officials have used this crisis to push forward new cyber crime laws limiting online speech. Egyptian police have arrested protestors for demanding the release of prisoners jailed dangerously close in overcrowded cells, including the family of free software developer and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah. And Egyptian officials have removed at least one journalist from the country for reporting on a study critical of the “official” number of cases.
Healthy Societies Require More Than One Voice
Though some regimes are taking this moment as an opportunity to censor and even jail individuals for their opposition, it’s heartening that there are also a number of stories of people coming together in innovative ways to aid one another, often in lieu of official government assistance. But in the rush to take in all the information available about the virus, often shared by individuals, not governments or the press, we can’t lose sight of how countries may be building frameworks that cement in place what does or does not qualify as “information” or “misinformation.” And while there’s an important flurry of legislative activity to protect people affected by this crisis, it’s important to remember that laws or regulations instituted now could be used to censor and overcorrect accurate, useful speech—sometimes the speech of those working together to help one another survive.
It’s clearer when you look to Dr. Li. In this crisis, the stories of individuals coming together to aid one another often intersect with those being arrested or charged for protest or misinformation. Time has saved lives, helping us slow the spread of the disease through quarantines, testing, and simple public health notices about hand washing and keeping six feet apart from others. And throughout the crisis, it’s frequently been those most at risk of retaliation—whistleblowers and government critics—who have given us that much-needed time by sounding the alarm.
Human rights workers, free expression advocates, bloggers, software developers, and activists are all in danger when government uses leeway obtained during a crisis to curtail free expression far beyond what’s required. Governments must not take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to justify new limitations on speech. And they must not use this crisis as a tool to set in place new restrictions or regulations on whistleblowers, activists, or others who are sharing information.
“I think a healthy society should not have just one voice,” Dr. Li told journalists just before his death, which sparked cries for an end to freedom of speech restrictions around the country. In this moment when the Internet has helped millions come together through quarantines and other difficult measures, laws restricting freedom of expression must not be expanded. Even dissenting voices are critical when the literal health of millions is at stake.