“You will no longer be able to decide where to go and where not to go. You won’t be able to gather. Each time you get out of the house, you will be controlled, and so will your interactions” - just three months ago, such a prediction wouldn’t even be taken seriously by most countries. Now, the circumstances have changed. For more than 2 billion people, this scenario became routine. COVID-19 showed the world that it’s much easier to lose constitutional freedoms than it would seem at first sight.
But there are countries in which a strict control of the population was already part of the government’s plan. The pandemic is a perfect subtext for tightening that control. A question is raised quite naturally: will the governments give up the additional tools that are now allowing it to limit the freedom of the citizens and consolidate its power? If yes, when will that happen? The problem is - the answer to that question depends entirely on the government’s will in some places.
The first Coronavirus case is yet to be registered in Turkmenistan. Officially, at least. President Gurbanguly Berdinurmukhamedov found the easiest of solutions - he silenced the government and a big part of media outlets. Now, he’s trying to silence the society: the word “Coronavirus” has been taken out of information brochures, people are being arrested because of talking about it. “We’re not hiding anything. Everything is fine!” - this is how the country’s vice prime minister Rashid Meridov responded to the situation recently.
The leader of Turkmenistan is known in the world for his eccentricity. He writes poems, books about traditional medicine and horse farming. The president participates in popularizing a healthy lifestyle and works out in front of the cameras with his ministers. Moreover, he has a passion for music - he sings, plays the synthesizer and raps. His scenic pseudonym is “DJ Gurbanguly”.
There are many jokes about him abroad, but inside the country he’s referred to as the “defending father”. 94% and 97% - these are his results at the last two presidential elections.
According to “Reporters without borders”, Turkmenistan is one of the most closed and repressive republics in the world. The government has total control over the information and political spheres. The websites of the media outlets that criticize the government are blocked and inaccessible inside the country. Political opponents are met with threats, physical violence, and arrests.
A similar order of things isn’t unfamiliar to our neighboring Azerbaijan. The spread of the Coronavirus gave the president Ilham Aliev yet another excuse to silence his opponents.
The opposition was criticising the government for its ineffective fight against the virus. Media manager Lala Alieva tells us that discontent about the government had accumulated throughout the population.
“The government was unable to provide adequate help for its people. The sum is very modest - 190 manats, which is the equivalent of 110 USD. But even that cannot be obtained by everyone. The help will only go to the families where none of the members are working. Hundreds - if not thousands - of examples indicate the government’s shortcomings”, says Lala.
As a response to complaints, the president called the opposition the traitors and accused them of trying to destroy the country. Along with the increase in the number of infected people, a series of arrests started in the country. Opponents of the government and civil activists became the main target. Opposition member Nijat Abdulaev was sentenced to 30 days in prison. The international organization “Human Rights Watch” says that journalists and other civil activists are also being arrested.
The respect of quarantine measures is strictly controlled. Citizens can only leave the house after receiving a special permit. On March 16 the government made the punishment for breaking the quarantine rules even stricter. A fine or a 30-day prison sentence - these are now the measures used in Azerbaijan in fighting the opposition and the freedom of speech.
Opponents call him the “victator”. President Victor Orban has been ruling Hungary for 10 years. Elite corruption, pressure on the media and NGOs, encouraging nationalist movements - the EU has been paying close attention to these and other breaches for a long time. But since the beginning of the Coronavirus epidemic the situation has worsened even more. Hungary’s government passed an unprecedented law in the history of the European family - as long as the country is in a state of emergency, Orban’s power will be unlimited. He can now unilaterally pass new laws and cancel old ones. He no longer needs the parliament’s consent for this. When will the state of emergency be lifted? “When it is necessary” - the population hasn’t received a more precise answer this far.
Freelance journalist Tibor Ratz tells us about warning signs.
“The government has made it very clear that the fight against the virus would last for a very long time”, he told us.
Not long after they passed a law that makes spreading disinformation about the viruts punishable by up to 5 years in prison. Journalists and civil rights defenders fear that, if needed, this law will be used to silence the journalists who are unfavorable to the regime.
But there are other methods of fighting.
“The opposition has recently found the following way to protest: driving around the president’s palace and beeping. However, the police arrested them, citing “unlawful beeping” as the reason. If that’s not tyranny, then I don’t know what is…”, - Tibor says.
This list could go on for much longer: Turkey, Russia, Iran, Uganda, Cambodia… In some places the lockdown measures are still being debated, while in others the government has already managed to silence the critics… And, the weaker the critical voices are sounding, the less questions remain about the near future of these countries.
Cover picture: Shutterstock
Other pictures: South China Morning Post, Azadliq Radiosu/RFERL, Shutterstock