Don’t Let Leaders Use the Coronavirus as an Excuse to Violate Civil Liberties

Today’s emergency measures could become tomorrow’s trampling of free speech.

By Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of PEN America.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the daily briefing of the White House Coronavirus Task Force in Washington on April 10. Alex Wong/Getty Images

As a pandemic sweeps the globe, it is carrying with it a related and equally dangerous threat to free speech and open discourse. The firing of Navy Capt. Brett Crozier for the crime of raising alarm bells over the spreading viral risk to the sailors under his command on the USS Theodore Roosevelt is among the most vivid examples of a metastasizing trend of silencing and punishing speech, ostensibly  to protect public health and order.

Emergencies have always been used as justifications to curb free speech in the name of keeping secrets, suppressing disloyalty, and aiding the war effort. While extreme measures may now seem warranted and urgent to help halt the contagion, a series of trends afoot pose serious risks for open expression, portending threats that are likely to endure long after the lockdown has lifted.

And many of these measures have less to do with public health than they do with protecting political and institutional reputations, and with trying to retake control of the devastating narrative of a pandemic that has fed on human failures of anticipation, preparation, and mobilization. The fact that Crozier’s disclosures were an act of conscience was made plain as hundreds of sailors cheered and chanted while he left his ship for the last time, applauding him for putting his career on the line to speak out for their safety.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

Unfortunately, while many of these trends tend to arise in authoritarian settings, others are taking root in democracies, including the United States. The suppression of speech impedes containment of the pandemic, obscures understanding of the crisis and how to prevent its recurrence, impairs the effort to hold accountable the officials who are responsible for managing the threat, and poses a lasting risk to civic health.Emergencies have always been used as justifications to curb free speech.

Back in January, the disciplining of Chinese medical doctor Li Wenliang for trying to alert fellow medical professionals to alarming symptoms he was seeing in patients was the first sign that amid this crisis, authorities would muzzle speech as a way to deny and deflect blame. Since then, an array of threats to free speech has emerged, including both reactive and opportunistic steps taken by officials.

Among the most egregious, visible, and poignant attacks on speech have targeted individual truth-tellers. The tragic story of Li, who died of the virus in early February, was just the first in a pattern of official efforts to discredit, block, and punish those who reveal facts and perspectives that authorities prefer to obscure from public view.

In late March, PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, Washington, fired doctor Ming Lin after he posted on Facebook about gaps in protective equipment and precautions. The New York Times has reported that doctor Deena Elkafrawi was reprimanded by Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx after she was quoted in print saying she feared going to work. Even New York University’s Langone Medical Center has issued a stern warning to its doctors that they could face termination if they speak to the press. The hospital has urged its staff to post only “positive and uplifting messages.” Professional strictures and institutional discipline have repeatedly been invoked to silence and punish experts who have found raising their concerns through ordinary channels to be fruitless.

With professionals under pressure to keep their heads down and their mouths closed, journalists are playing an essential role in ferreting out the facts and holding officials’ feet to the fire. Yet despite the doggedness of reporters who keep at it amid dangers, the pandemic has witnessed a systemic campaign to denigrate credible news outlets for factual journalism with respect to the crisis. The daily spectacle of U.S. President Donald Trump calling journalists nasty and incompetent and disparaging their credentials is hardly new, but has been exacerbated since the president now comes to the podium daily and insults those who raise topics he’d rather not confront.

The role of professional, unflinching journalists in covering the pandemic is particularly important in light of Trump’s persistence in spreading misinformation. In his daily press briefings, Trump is elevating speculation, opinion, and falsehoods.  Historically, a presidential pronouncement from a White House podium was among the weightiest, most carefully vetted communications emanating from any source in the world.

But Trump uses his pulpit to tout unproven treatments, downplay the severity of the crisis, and spread falsehoods such as the notion that rail and air passengers are being medically screened, while trumpeting his crisis response effort as successful in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Though many networks have rightly taken him off the air, his relentless propaganda nonetheless drags down public discourse and makes it impossible for citizens to know what to believe.

Trump’s threats, insults, and evasions of the media have emboldened and inspired leaders globally to hem in critical media. Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel’s famous admonition never to let “a serious crisis to go to waste” has been taken to heart by authoritarians around the world.

On March 8, Azerbaijani journalist Tezekhan Mirelemli started live broadcasting from the D18 opposition movement’s Baku office as police officers ordered the office closed, saying that the activists could not “gather en masse” due to fears of spreading the novel coronavirus. There were only four people in the office at the time and officers refused to provide a court order or other documentation for the closure.

Meanwhile, Iran has banned the distribution of all print newspapers, purportedly on the grounds that delivering them could spread the virus. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has arrogated for himself the power to rule by decree and implemented new restrictions on journalism that the government deems harmful to the coronavirus response. Sources are drying up and journalists in Hungary are holding back on reporting for fear of imprisonment, impairing coverage of the pandemic’s spread.

The Philippines has threatened imprisonment for journalists who report what the government deems to be “false information.” Thailand has authorized prison terms of up to five years for reporting what the government deems “is untrue and may cause public fear.” Egypt’s government has expelled a Guardian correspondent and warned a New York Times journalist based on stories that cast doubt on official counts of COVID-19 cases.

China expelled reporters from the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the New York Times just as the true story of its mishandling of the pandemic was beginning to emerge. Voices that have traditionally spoken out against naked efforts to smother critical coverage—such as the U.S. government and the European Union—have been mostly silent, mired in their own crisis responses and guilty of their own lapses.

The dangers the pandemic poses to the role of the press go beyond intentional abuses of power by rulers seeking to control information and burnish their images. In the United States, community spread of the coronavirus has underscored the imperative of robust local news coverage in cities and towns, providing citizens with vital information about trend lines, quarantines, and lockdowns, and about how to access essential services. Several papers have removed paywalls on COVID-19 coverage, recognizing that it represents an essential public service.

But many of the local media outlets accustomed to providing this civic good have disappeared or are on their last legs, struggling with advertising and print subscription-based business models that have been withering for years. With the collapse of local events due to social distancing, retail and restaurants’ dwindling advertising revenue has often dried up completely. Gannett, which owns some 260 U.S. daily papers, has announced pay cuts and furloughs. Other outlets, including the Buffalo News, Tampa Bay Times, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and many more, are implementing reductions in publication schedules and staffing. While the ravaging of local news is not the fault of officials, they can do something to help address it by ensuring that stimulus dollars can help keep these essential outlets alive.The dangers the pandemic poses to the role of the press go beyond intentional abuses of power by rulers.

The impact of COVID-19 on free speech also encompasses highly personal and private information. The pandemic has brought into public view extraordinary methods of mass surveillance that governments hold at their fingertips, and which can be genuinely useful in helping to curb the spread of the virus. Technologies that can track who has come into contact with an infected person, where they have traveled, and who carries risk factors can help prioritize individuals for treatment or designate them for quarantine.

While potentially lifesaving if used correctly, these same technologies also have the potential to screen communications to see who is searching online for what, or to apply racial or other forms of profiling to assign risk factors to individuals. Such technologies could also impede individuals’ freedom to research certain topics or visit particular places for fear that they might be marked as representing a health risk and subjected to constraints on their freedom as a result.

With companies now collaborating with governments to collect, analyze, and operationalize masses of data on individuals’ movements, temperatures, and contacts, the already slender protections for our online privacy are likely to shrivel. Ambitious, app-based efforts to scale contact-tracing in the context of the pandemic could readily be repurposed by governments to track individuals’ contacts with dissidents, political allies, and journalists.

Knowledge that the government has a way to track these types of associations would impair freedom of speech and association as well as chill political organizing efforts. The potent technologies powering these apps could tip off governments to where we’ve been, whom we’ve seen, and what we’ve been talking about in ways that make us nostalgic for the analog police states of yore.

And not all the risks to free speech emanate from government. Internet platforms have mostly earned praise for their vociferous efforts to counter what the World Health Organization (WHO) has dubbed an infodemic—the explosive spread of virus-related misinformation and conspiracy theories, some of which can result in delayed or flawed treatments, or even death.

With companies now collaborating with governments to collect, analyze, and use data on individuals’ movements, temperatures, and contacts, the already slender protections for our online privacy are likely to shrivel.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and their subsidiaries have taken aggressive measures to remove and demote false virus-related content, as well as to amplify the visibility of reliable information provided by credible sources such as the WHO and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At times, these efforts have gone too far, including when artificial intelligence powering Facebook’s algorithms began removing posts about how to make a face mask and credible reporting on the virus.

Because the platforms offer next to nothing by way of notification and appeals processes with respect to content that is taken down, there is a risk that amid valiant efforts to curb falsehoods and deceit, a good deal of legitimate content will disappear without speakers even knowing that their voices have been silenced.  Moreover, the powerful demonstration in recent weeks of online platforms’ ability to curb the flow of misinformation will likely inspire governments to demand that similarly aggressive measures be applied in future to disfavored content, for example relating to dissident groups that a government deems subversive.

The current conduct of governments could have lasting ramifications. As the immediate crisis (hopefully) subsides and attention turns to restarting the economy, there is no guarantee that public or political pressure will be powerful enough to ensure that pandemic-driven crackdowns on civil liberties don’t outlast the contagion. Moreover, there is a risk that aspects of the battle against COVID-19 become a new “forever war,” with privacy violations and censorship becoming semipermanent on the grounds that the virus, and its inevitable successors, can never be fully vanquished.

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel