Don't let free speech be a casualty of coronavirus. We need it more than ever | Cas Mudde

In times of crisis, liberal democratic institutions and values are vulnerable to authoritarian power grabs, or corona coups, as we are seeing around the world today. One of the first victims, as always, is freedom of speech. But the current attack on free speech is particularly dangerous, because it does not only target, reasonably, “fake news” on coronavirus, but also critique of inadequacies in hospitals by healthcare workers.

Repressive measures against fake news have been a popular topic for years now, having reached feverish levels in the wake of the 2016 US presidential elections. Even though the actual effects of “fake news” and “Russian interference” remain unclear and highly disputed, many mainstream politicians have convinced themselves that the spread of fake news is one of the main reasons that they are losing votes and power to populists.

Social media platforms are pressured into “fighting fake news” and a true cottage industry of factcheckers has emerged – many reputable, some not. Still, too little progress has been made. This is not that surprising, though, given the daily barrage of fake news coming out of some of the most powerful political offices in the world, including Downing Street and the White House.

Since the term was popularized by Donald Trump, it should come as no surprise that populists in power have enthusiastically embraced the fight against “fake news”. And now the coronavirus has given them an opportunity to intensify that fight by passing draconian new laws, allegedly to prevent fake news from worsening the crisis.

One of the worst examples, as so often in recent years, comes out of Hungary, where the rubber stamp parliament has passed a set of “emergency measures” – without actually facing an emergency (as of 31 March, Hungary has officially had only 492 cases, including 16 deaths) – to give the far-right prime minister Viktor Orbán “dictatorial powers”. As Orbán rules by decree, anything that he deems “fake news” will be punishable to up to five years in prison – a death sentence for independent media, in so far as it still exists in Hungary.

Perhaps even more dangerous is the attack on the free speech of people at the frontlines of the fight against the coronavirus: healthcare workers. These are the people best informed about the situation, and thus the best potential antidotes to fake news. Yet, according to the Independent, British NHS doctors are being gagged over protective equipment shortages, while NHS England has taken control of communications for many NHS hospitals and staff.

In the US, one of the few western democracies without a universal public healthcare system, individual private hospitals are doing the censoring. Prioritizing their brand and profits over the health of their patients and staff, private hospitals across the US have threatened staff with termination if they speak out about the lack of protective gear. Several hospital staff have already been fired after speaking out, an incredible waste of crucial but sparse resources during a pandemic.

Leaving aside the problem of employers regulating the speech of their employees, incidentally an increasingly common development (even at universities), censoring healthcare professionals is outright dangerous to the broader community. These are the people who actually have day-to-day experience with the coronavirus and risk their lives to help others – particularly if their employers don’t provide them with adequate protective gear.

Moreover, we know how dangerous this type of censorship is from recent experiences in China. Max Fisher has written an excellent New York Times exposé of how China’s authoritarian structure had worsened the country’s response to the coronavirus outbreak. And western media have devoted ample attention to the tragic case of Li Wenliang, the Chinese whistleblower doctor who died of the coronavirus in February.

The irony is that some of the same politicians who support, or at least allow, the censorship of healthcare professionals in their own country have been outspoken critics of the Chinese approach. For instance, the British cabinet minister Michael Gove recently blamed China for failing to stop the spread of coronavirus, while Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House foreign affairs committee, even called China’s response “one of the worst cover-ups in human history”.

To ensure that we are not making the same mistakes as China, and to protect the health and lives of the heroic healthcare workers (including the many volunteers) who are putting their lives on the line every day to keep us alive and healthy, we must resist these dangerous attacks on free speech, as well as other unnecessary authoritarian measures in response to the coronavirus crisis. Irrespective of the hype about fake news, free speech makes us more rather than less safe, both as citizens and patients, even in times of a health crisis.


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