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New Freedom House report: ‘Democracy under Lockdown’ (Demo)

This statement was originally published on on 2 October 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled a crisis for democracy around the world. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, the condition of democracy and human rights has grown worse in 80 countries. Governments have responded by engaging in abuses of power, silencing their critics, and weakening or shuttering important institutions, often undermining the very systems of accountability needed to protect public health.

This is the conclusion of new Freedom House research on the impact of COVID-19 on democracy and human rights, produced in partnership with the survey firm GQR. Based on a survey of 398 journalists, civil society workers, activists, and other experts as well as research on 192 countries by Freedom House’s global network of analysts, this report is the first of its kind and the most in-depth effort to date to examine the condition of democracy during the pandemic (see full methodology).

The research strongly supports the hypothesis that the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the 14 years of consecutive decline in freedom. Not only has democracy weakened in 80 countries, but the problem is particularly acute in struggling democracies and highly repressive states – in other words, settings that already had weak safeguards against abuse of power are suffering the most. The findings illustrate the breadth and depth of the assault on democracy. As one respondent on Cambodia put it, “The government [took] coronavirus as the opportunity to demolish democratic space.”

Sri Lanka’s experience illustrates the global trends. The government of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa accelerated its authoritarian agenda over the past six months, stepping up efforts to control independent reporting and unfavorable speech by ordering the arrest of anyone who criticizes or contradicts the official line on the coronavirus. Early elections were called but, as the outbreak accelerated, were postponed, leaving the national legislature out of session beyond the constitutional deadline and weakening checks on executive power. Health concerns were also exploited by authorities as a pretext for human rights abuses, especially against the minority Muslim population.


The crisis of democratic governance, having begun long before the pandemic, is likely to continue after the health crisis recedes, as the laws and norms being put in place now will be difficult to reverse. Among the experts surveyed, 64 percent agreed that the impact of COVID-19 on democracy and human rights in their country of focus will be mostly negative over the next three to five years. China’s experience over the past nine months could prove a dystopian model for the future: increased nationalist and propagandistic rhetoric at home in an effort to drown out calls for transparency and accountability, enhanced and innovative technological surveillance, crackdowns on individuals within and outside the country who share information that contradicts regime messaging, and the persecution of potential critics among the domestic elite.

Yet even amid devastation and disruption, some have responded to the pandemic with hope and rejuvenation. Journalism has thrived in certain countries as people seek out factual information, and investigative reporting has persisted in several of the most hostile environments. As one expert on Cuba said, “Activists and independent journalists have been willing to risk fines and imprisonment to report accurately on what is taking place in the country.” Civil society organizations have also worked tirelessly to maintain accountability in face of new challenges. And the mishandling of the crisis by many governments has spurred demands for change, most notably in Belarus, where mass protests that began in August have blossomed into a major movement for political reform. Democracy is suffering around the world, but the public’s demand for it has not been extinguished.

“Democracy is suffering around the world, but the public’s demand for it has not been extinguished.”

The following report summarizes the results of Freedom House’s research into the impact of COVID-19 on democracy and human rights from January to August 2020. It describes five aspects of accountability that have been weakened: checks against abuses of power, protection of vulnerable groups, transparency and anticorruption, free media and expression, and credible elections. It concludes with a summary of the reasons for hope and a set of recommendations, along with the report methodology.

Read the full report.

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