Out of View, Autocrats Are Busy

The U.S. election and the Covid crisis have distracted from repression around the world

While hundreds of millions of people around the world fixated on the U.S. election, disturbing developments were taking place. Away from Western-media scrutiny, an authoritarian resurgence has been worsening for years, and it seems to have accelerated during the Trump-Biden contest and these past months of the Covid crisis.

When Americans anxiously watched their televisions and phones for the fragmentary results on Election Night, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia—winner of the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize—was launching military attacks in a rebellious region that could escalate into civil war, also threatening a democratic opening in one of Africa’s most important countries. In Syria, government forces accelerated their relentless shelling of rebel-held territory in Idlib Province, killing more civilians, according to human rights monitors. In Thailand, the military-backed government sought to suppress a protest movement calling for democratic reforms. And in Zimbabwe, one of the country’s leading journalists and anti-corruption crusaders was arrested.

Around the world, civil liberties and political rights have deteriorated for each of the past 14 years, a recent Freedom House report shows. The events of this year are expected to result in further declines. Since the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic, many governments have used the cover of the health crisis to limit transparency, to crack down on journalists and free expression, to undermine elections, scapegoat minority groups, and otherwise weaken democratic institutions and strengthen their hold on power.

As many as 80 countries have experienced setbacks for democracy and human rights during the pandemic, according to a recent Freedom House report. Roughly two-thirds of some 400 experts surveyed about conditions in their countries of focus expected Covid to have a negative impact on human rights over the next three to five years. The problems are particularly pronounced in countries led by dictators and autocrats: They have plainly seen an opportunity.

Several autocratic tactics have stood out. The first is a dramatic escalation of efforts to curb free expression, an independent media, and journalists themselves. The Freedom House report showed that 91 countries experienced new or increased restrictions on the news media as a result of the outbreak—almost half of the 192 countries we covered. In Egypt, for example, the Supreme Council for Media Regulation threatened legal action against journalists or media outlets that might depict negative aspects of the government’s response to Covid. A fog of misinformation around the virus has prevented people from taking the necessary steps to protect their health, notably in Nicaragua, Turkmenistan and Burundi, where the president died, likely of Covid. (The leaders of some democracies, including the United States, have also promoted misinformation, but they lack the repressive power to silence factual reporting and corrective statements by other officials.)

One-third of the human rights experts and activists surveyed for the report identified corruption and money in politics among the three most significant issues affected by the pandemic response in their countries. They shared stories of massive government outlays with little accountability, supplies disappearing, and suspicious contracts granted to favored businesses.

A final worrying trend is the intensification of a classic authoritarian tactic: the scapegoating of ethnic, religious and other minority groups. In Myanmar, the military has stepped up attacks on ethnic minorities, and some of the experts surveyed by Freedom House saw the pandemic as a distraction that helped facilitate these actions. Meanwhile in Kuwait, the authorities imposed greater restrictions on movement in neighborhoods populated by noncitizens.

Some of the most vitriolic language directed at marginalized groups has come from democratically elected populist leaders, as in Poland, where the ruling party has accelerated a campaign against the LGBT community. In India, which experienced a steep decline in its freedom score last year, members of the ruling Hindu nationalist party have made ludicrous claims of a conspiracy by members of the Muslim community to spread Covid in acts of “corona terrorism.”

The more politically savvy leaders have used the pandemic to further entrench themselves in power. For example, the Sri Lankan president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, called early parliamentary elections, then postponed them due to the health crisis, enabling him to rule without a legislature for five months. When the voting was eventually held, the government’s tight control over campaign activity and the media helped ensure victory for the political party of the president’s brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, allowing the two to establish a firm grip on both the executive and legislative branches.

Other authoritarians have made clumsy errors, and exposed themselves to public anger that could ultimately lead to democratic progress. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka of Belarus, who has wielded unchecked power since the 1990s, simply denied the presence of Covid in his country, or dismissed the danger. When he sought to rig his re-election in August, frustrated citizens took to the streets to protest his incompetence and demand his ouster. Those protests continue, but without as much media attention as they might have attracted, given the distraction of the U.S. election.

Once the Biden administration takes power in January, enormous foreign-policy challenges await. It should work closely with democratic allies to meet the threats posed by authoritarian powers like China and Russia; to defuse regional conflicts driven by autocratic rulers; and to offer moral and material support wherever citizens’ demands for basic freedoms are met with repression.

It is hard to overstate the drubbing the U.S. image abroad has taken over the four years of the Trump administration. Progress in addressing the authoritarian surge will be difficult until the United States shores up its own democratic institutions, including its electoral system. It must re-establish norms surrounding the rule of law, media freedom, and safeguards against corruption, and tackle chronic problems like racial injustice.

The repression taking place during our distraction only affirms the need for the United States to reclaim its traditional role: a champion of political freedom and human rights. When Biden is sworn in, he will face a world in dire need of hope.

Michael Abramowitz is president of Freedom House.