Human Rights Watch: Governments are using COVID-19 to trample on free speech

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(CNN) - At least 83 governments worldwide have used the pandemic to justify curbs on free speech and peaceful assembly, NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW) said on Thursday.

Authorities have "attacked, detained, prosecuted, and in some cases killed critics," with victims including journalists, activists, health care workers, political opponents and others who have criticized those governments' COVID-19 responses, HRW added.

Governments should counter COVID-19 by encouraging people to mask up, not shut up," Gerry Simpson, HRW's associate crisis and conflict director, said in a statement. "Beating, detaining, prosecuting, and censoring peaceful critics violates many fundamental rights, including free speech, while doing nothing to stop the pandemic."

In some countries, like China and Egypt, people remain in detention " simply for criticizing government responses to COVID-19 months earlier." It points to the plight of independent Chinese journalist Zhang Zhan, who reported from Wuhan at the height of the initial coronavirus outbreak.

She was jailed for four years in December after being found guilty of "picking quarrels and provoking trouble," according to one of her defense lawyers Zhang Keke.

Other trends include "military or police forces in at least 18 countries" physically assaulting civil society actors, "including some who criticized government responses to COVID-19 such as insufficient healthcare funding, lockdowns, and a lack of masks and gloves for medical workers." It says countries have also arbitrarily banned or broke up protests, and restricted access to public health information.

The group has called for the United Nations Human Rights Council to commission a new report looking into the "impact of restrictions on free speech and peaceful assembly," it wrote.

“Excessive and sometimes violent crackdowns on critical speech by governments signify a perilous willingness to sideline a fundamental freedom in the name of countering COVID-19,” Simpson added. “The obligation of governments to protect the public from this deadly pandemic is not a carte blanche for placing a chokehold on information and suppressing dissent.”

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