Stories of resisting authoritarianism during COVID-19

We hear from activists in Venezuela, Zimbabwe, and more.

In 2020, AFSC launched the Under the Mask project to track governmental abuses of power in the context of the pandemic. While countries around the world enacted measures to contain the virus, some governments have exploited COVID-19 to impose authoritarian policies—including expanding surveillance of everyday citizens and restricting free speech and other civil liberties.

Our Under the Mask project brought together activists and civil society organizations from 32 countries for online discussions about their experiences and ways to counter oppressive state measures. 

Recently we checked in with some friends and partners around the world about their ongoing resistance. Here’s what they had to say about their work, including some positive signs that activists and organizations are making progress in reclaiming civic space.

Venezuela: International pressure has helped win the release of wrongfully detained people.

Pedro Jaimes on his release. Photo: @espaciopublico

Since 2017, Espacio Público—a civil society organization that works to protect free speech in Venezuela—has seen a surge in cases needing defense, says Amado Vivas, coordinator of the legal department. Under President Maduro, anyone who speaks out against the government can face threats, attacks, and incarceration. In September 2021, a fact-finding mission appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) found the government to be responsible for atrocities amounting to crimes against humanity involving extrajudicial executions and crackdowns on protesters. During the pandemic, the governments has used its state of emergency to further punish dissent.

Organizations such as the HRC and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have been successful in pressuring the government to free political prisoners. “The government will never publicly accept a decision of an international organization or show to concede to their demands,” Amado says. “Instead they will wait some time before  releasing prisoners… However we’ve seen that the government doesn’t want to draw [negative] attention and seeks to maintain a certain image of themselves.” 

Amado shared the story of Pedro Jaimes, who was declared innocent and freed from incarceration on Jan. 21 after an unjust legal process that had begun nearly three years earlier. In 2018, Pedro was detained for tweeting the route of the presidential plane and then charged with three crimes, including disclosure of political secrets, despite this information being publicly available. Several national and international organizations spoke out about his case, led by Espacio Público. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has demanded the state make reparation for the violation of Jaimes’ human rights. 

While the pandemic has brought more cases for Espacio Publico, it has also widened and strengthened the organization’s network. “Regional coordinators are taking information and resources to deliver workshops in rural communities we aren’t usually able to reach,” which means more people are engaged and connected than ever before as there are a lack of human rights defenders and activists in these areas, Amado says. “It’s all a learning process, a positive process with small successes.”

Slovenia: Weekly bicycle protests demonstrate against government crackdown on civil society.

 A Slovenian protester. Credit: AFP images

In Slovenia, the far-right coalition led by Prime Minister Janez Janša has pushed for extreme-right policies that restrict civil society organizations, rights-based organizations, and environmental organizations as well as media, protesters, and dissenters (read more). Seventy percent of Slovenians do not support the current administration and have found creative ways to protest its policies even amid increasing restrictions during COVID-19—including posting videos on social media and displaying signs from their balconies.

Activist Tea Jarc is president of Sindikat Mladi plus, a trade union of students, young unemployed people and young precarious workers. In April 2020, she and a small group of activists started a weekly protest by coming together at the city center on their bicycles—and it’s now grown into a national symbol of solidarity against increasing authoritarianism. 

“We wanted to come together to show our solidarity against the government in a safe way as protests were forbidden under emergency measures during the pandemic,” she says. It is now a movement, with around 15,000 cycles occupying the streets and stopping traffic every week. It has also spread from capital city, Ljubljana, to all other cities and municipalities, shining a spotlight on what is happening in the country and compelling more people to understand what’s happening and get involved. 

Although the protest has limited influence, it has put pressure on some members of parliament who have left the far-right party, impacting its legitimacy. In the second half of 2021, Slovenia will hold the presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU)—a critical opportunity for the international community—specifically EU members states— to help the citizens of Slovenia hold the government to account. “We just want a new election,” says Tea. “We just want democracy.”

Related resources: 

Philippines: Communities resist by providing food and other necessities to neighbors in need. 

A community pantry in Batasan Hills, Quezon City. Credit: Eyriche Cortez

“Give according to your means, take according to your need.” This is the message being shared across makeshift community pantries that are providing free items such as rice, vegetables, canned goods, and facemasks, benefiting millions of Filipinos who need assistance in the pandemic. In some areas, farmers are donating produce and fishermen give away their catch. 

President Duterte, who has been known to “red tag” opposition to the government, has accused groups of using community pantries as a vehicle to recruit members to the communist movement. Despite the risk, a model started by Ana Patricia Non in her neighbourhood of Maginhawa, Quezon City, has inspired replicas nationwide. These community pantries are now not just an expression of compassion for the poor, but a political statement against the state’s lack of assistance as the country struggles to recover from one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns. It has become a symbol of national solidarity and unity born out of necessity. 

Zimbabwe: Media outlets respond to citizen demands for accuracy in reporting. 

Throughout the pandemic, we have also seen what’s been dubbed an “infodemic”—with an abundance of misinformation and disinformation circulating online. In Zimbabwe, Nigel Nyamtumbu, programme director for Media Alliance has seen incremental gains, with more citizens calling for  greater transparency from the media in the digital space—and media outlets have responded. 

“People are more likely to question their information and its source as fact checking tools and resources are being used to verify online information—this has been highlighted by COVID,” Nigel says. In response, “platforms are investing in higher-quality information products and producing more reliable content as there is now a demand for it, and those in power know these processes exist. Information literacy, online regulation, and transparency still has a long way to go, but it is an encouraging example of how sector-driven consumership can lead to progress.” 

Related resource: 

Do you have questions or comments? Do you have an example or story to share? Email us at Under the Mask.