Covid-19: response to pandemic wreaks havoc with rights across Middle East

Emad Mekay, IBA Middle East Correspondent, CairoThursday 14 May 2020

When Roya TV in Jordan aired a report highlighting the concerns of workers over the economic impact of the country’s Covid-19 curfew, the channel was expecting peak viewership as the public stayed home. But, just hours later, two of its top executives were arrested, part of an emerging trend across the Middle East whereby those questioning the official response to the pandemic are penalised and, on occasion, thrown behind bars.

The segment on the privately-owned satellite station featured one man in an Amman slum saying the government’s lockdown came with no bailout for workers. ‘I need to feed my family. What should I do now? Should I resort to stealing or selling drugs? Should we start begging on the streets?’ he asked.

Later, Roya TV’s general manager and owner, Fares Sayegh, and its news director, Mohammad al-Khalidi, were detained. The broadcaster had to issue an apologetic statement reaffirming ‘trust of the efforts exerted by the Jordanian state in protecting the homeland and citizens since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, under the leadership of His Majesty King Abdullah II.’ The two executives were later released by the country’s military.

In some ways the originators or the casus belli of the virus’ global reach has been precisely the lack of openness, transparency and accountability by government

Fionnuala D Ní Aoláin
UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism

Like Jordan, governments across the region are resorting to emergency powers, the threat of prison, fines or even public slander to silence those doubting official measures, infection numbers or accusing the government of incompetence in dealing with the lethal outbreak.

A tally of legal measures taken as a result of Covid-19 put together by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law and European Center for Not-for-Profit Law found that most countries in the Middle East made emergency declarations and took steps that undermine rights and freedoms of expression and assembly. Most governments justify the crackdown on the grounds that they want avoid panic among the public.

In April, Iraq suspended Reuters’ licence for three months over a report that put the number of cases at a higher rate than announced by the authorities. Reuters, which cited three doctors involved in the virus testing process, was also fined $21,000. The authorities accused the international agency of endangering public safety and hindering efforts to prevent the spread of the virus. Like in other countries across the region, medical staff have been instructed not to speak to the media.

In the United Arab Emirates, the local press reported that authorities enacted penalties ranging from one to several years in prison for ‘false information’ on social media about the virus for fear of spreading ‘rumours’ or ‘panic among members of society’. In Israel, the government ordered police to use a secret trove of cell phone data to track suspected Covid-19 patients or those infected, without a court order.

In March, Egypt ordered The Guardian's Cairo correspondent Ruth Michaelson to leave the country for writing a story quoting figures from a Canadian researcher that the 100 million-people country had a much higher infection rate than officially announced. The New York Times' correspondent Declan Welsh, who had tweeted about the same research, was called to the offices of the State Information Service, which oversees the foreign press, and issued a warning he could be next.

Unfavourable social media posts about Cairo's crisis management were criminalised as sedition and authorities encouraged Egyptians to refer posts deemed anti-government to police.

After tips from a movie star, the country’s much feared secret police arrested outspoken Alexandria student, Aya Kamaleldin, who, in a Facebook post, had criticised the military of monopolising the production of personal protective equipment and for sending aid needed at home to richer foreign countries, when the local health care system wasn’t well equipped. In early May, Amnesty International said it documented the arrest of at least 12 individuals including one journalist, who questioned official statistics in relation to the spread of Covid-19 on his Facebook page.

Authorities in Morocco, Oman and Yemen issued decrees suspending newspaper printing and distribution in face of the pandemic. Oman later added prohibitions on importing publications from overseas. The measures were promoted as a way to prevent the spread of the virus. Free speech advocates faulted the measure as aimed at limiting flow of accurate data and debate around the issue.

Iran, at one point the hardest hit country after China, limited social media landscape and expanded censorship over an already-restricted media. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that the Iranian judiciary ordered local journalists not to report on the death toll caused by Covid-19. ‘They got in touch with the editors-in-chief in newsrooms and the administrators of Telegram and Instagram accounts,’ CPJ quoted a local Kurdish-Iranian journalist as saying.

While governments in the region are churning out positive stories about their role in battling against the health risk, individuals, for example, posting viral pictures of neglected hospitals as evidence of the lack of readiness of the health care system, are labelled as ‘traitors’ or ‘foreign agents’.

Several international experts have warned that the pandemic has fuelled the muzzling of the free flow of information, lack of transparency and censorship and warned that may in fact be energising widespread scepticism over the accuracy of virus data and, in turn, creating more fear and confusion.

‘In some ways the originators or the casus belli of the virus’ global reach has been precisely the lack of openness, transparency and accountability by government,’ said Fionnuala D Ní Aoláin, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism. Ní Aoláin told Global Insight in an interview that the crackdown on coronavirus criticism or independent reporting is part of a shrinking space globally for information, rights and for alternative views. ‘We are facing both a global health pandemic but also an epidemic of exceptional powers. We see expansive powers given to the police and military authorities. We see an enormous use of surveillance technology often used in counter-terrorism and we see security situations switched over to the health context.’

Sara Elizabeth Dill, Arab Regional Forum Liaison Officer of the IBA War Crimes Committee, noted that Jordan has arrested hundreds - almost on a daily basis - for violating the lockdown restrictions, instead of taking a less restrictive path such as giving violators citations or fines. ‘One thing that is troubling is what’s happening in Jordan right now,’ says Dill. ‘This does pose a greater risk for spread of the virus when you are putting that many people in closed crowded conditions, where there is likely to be lack of masks, gloves and other protective equipment. We have concerns about due process and human rights because you have the inability of lawyers to meet with their clients face to face. Courts are mostly closed or on very restricted procedures during this time. So there’s a question of how long these people are going to be held. So I do think we need to keep an eye on what’s happening in Jordan and if this starts to happen in other places.’

Dill, however, said that governments are in a difficult position and called for a legal debate as to how to prepare for such situations in the future. ‘Governments have to make a decision about a virus that very little is known about. You have governments, and legislators and rulers making decisions on things that are constantly changing. And I don’t envy them in this time,’ she said.

‘You have concerns that with something that’s so infectious and so easily spread as Covid-19, you’re trying to protect the masses from the few that would seek to disobey the government orders. And so governments are caught in a bind as to what do we enact in terms of legislation? What type of restrictions do we place? How much do we enforce them? And what does that enforcement look like? This is where deterrence and punishment, the age-old criminal justice factors, come into play. You have to protect your citizens and protect the health of your citizens while still being mindful of other concerns. This is where human rights almost becomes a hierarchy as we examine how to effectively respond to a pandemic such as this one.’

Ní Aoláin acknowledged the rights of states to adopt some emergency measures but she warned that history doesn’t bode well for the future of rights and freedoms once lost under those special circumstances. ‘States do have the right to limit certain rights specifically to help confront or manage an exceptional situation like a health pandemic. But the key point is that it’s not a blank cheque. There are limits to the powers and the exceptions a state can invoke,’ she said. ‘The bottom line is that any measure taken has to be clearly linked to the health challenge not essentially an excuse to do that which could not be done otherwise.’