Apr 8, 2020

NEW YORK – The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) condemns the abuse of emergency laws by authoritarian regimes around the world as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A number of authoritarian regimes have used the pandemic as an opportunity to abuse incitement and defamation laws, as well as state of emergency laws, in violation of international legal standards. Under international law, states can only limit civil liberties in exceptional cases and under strict conditions.

“Authoritarian regimes are weaponizing COVID-19 to crack down on individual liberties, and while their specific tactics may differ, the end result is the same: tightening their grip on power and controlling the narrative,” said HRF president Thor Halvorssen.

When the outbreak first emerged in Wuhan in late 2019, the Chinese Communist Party was determined to control the narrative about the newly-discovered virus. Concerned doctors such as Dr. Li Wenliang and citizen journalists such as Chen Qiushi and Fang Bin were detained for “spreading rumors” and “disturbing public order” when they strived to inform the public about the realities of the infectious disease. Dr. Li passed away from COVID-19 in early February at the age of 33. Chen Quishi and Fang Bin remain in incommunicado detention to this day.

In Cambodia, Asia’s longest-ruling dictator, Hun Sen, has used the pandemic as an excuse to arrest supporters of the dissolved opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Lorn Ly, a supporter of CNRP, was arrested for posting a video discussing a case of coronavirus in Cambodia. He is charged with spreading “fake news.” A total of 17 Cambodians — many of them CNRP supporters and one only 14 years-old — were arrested for talking about the pandemic online.

In Hungary, the parliament voted on March 30th to grant Prime Minister Viktor Orbán the ability to rule by decree indefinitely. The emergency law could also penalize the promotion of false information by up to five years in prison. Many opposition and pro-democracy activists fear that the state of emergency in response to COVID-19 will be used to curb free speech and censor information. Journalists have already faced harassment for reporting about the ways in which Hungary has mismanaged the coronavirus response.

Even under a state of emergency, states must ensure individual liberties such as freedom of expression are safeguarded. The use of incitement and defamation laws to persecute those who speak freely violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” said HRF senior legal associate Roberto González.

As autocratic rulers use this health crisis as an excuse to expand their hold on power, HRF remains committed to uniting people in the common cause of defending human rights and promoting liberal democracy. This is a critical time to take action and prevent authoritarian regimes from further diminishing individual rights.


The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.