In the midst of fear, our democracies are being stolen

14
Irawan Ronodipuro INDEPENDENT OBSERVER

 IO – In the aftermath of 9/11, citizens around the world quickly ceded their rights to privacy in their lives. This was based on the belief that governments would use their spying technologies to track down, monitor and apprehend terrorists. And for the most part, governments used their surveillance capabilities for good purpose, eventually winning the war on terrorism. 

Yet, as the threat of terrorism subsided, the surveillance state was not scaled down–if anything, it became increasingly stronger and invasive. 

Nearing two decades since the Twin Towers came crashing down, now we face the existential threat of the coronavirus. Many aspects of our lives, such as how we work and interact socially, have already changed. How this crisis will leave its mark even after a vaccine is available remains to be seen, but there will be, much like in the wake of 9/11, some long-lasting effects, both good and bad. 

Already there are signs that we need to be worried and on our guard. Politicians are declaring states of emergency, passing decrees and legislation to deal with the crisis, essentially granting them dictatorial authority. In some cases, such measures are needed 

Already there are signs that we need to be worried and on our guard. Politicians are declaring states of emergency, passing decrees and legislation to deal with the crisis, essentially granting them dictatorial authority. In some cases, such measures are needed states need the power to close borders, enforce quarantines and track infected people. In order to protect our health, we ought to be willing to sacrifice some of our liberties. 

At the same time, few politicians are bothering to include sunset clauses in these new laws. This begs the question of whether or not these extraordinary powers will ever be relinquished. 

The new laws, passed in places such as Britain, Hungary, Israel, the Philippines, Jordan and many others, have included provisions to broaden state surveillance, the power to detain people indefinitely, arrest people for spreading ‹false information›, and, restrict their citizens› basic freedom of assembly. 

We can only imagine what will happen if politicians start abusing these emergency powers. Already, long before the virus erupted, elected leaders in numerous countries were systematically undermining their democracies on an unprecedented scale. Now we see those same politicians exploiting the public health crisis to squash dissent. 

In Chile, for example, the military has left the barracks and have been patrolling the streets of Santiago, effectively bringing an end to a months-long period of anti-government protest. In Hungary, a new emergency law has granted Prime Minister Viktor Orban the power to suspend laws, and only Orban himself has the right to end the emergency. 

Even in Britain, which has enjoyed a long history of democracy and is widely-admired, a coronavirus bill was rushed through Parliament which effectively gives the government the power to detain and isolate people on an indefinite basis. The bill also bans all public gatherings, including protests. 

With at least another 12-18 months before a vaccine is made available, there is a strong possibility yet more civil liberties will be sacrificed. The risk is even in the absence of a crisis, restoring those rights could prove extremely difficult. 

What happens exactly when there is no crisis left for politicians to exploit is hard to predict. More than likely, those countries with strong democratic traditions will remove measures that once impinged upon basic civil liberties. Others, less inclined to hand back emergency powers, will try to find excuses to keep them intact. That, in turn, could start a fresh round of people going into the streets and demanding change, much like we watched in 2019 and which was dubbed by some as the ‘year of protest’. 

In Indonesia, no civil emergency status has been announced yet, although the president has said he will do so if the situation gets worse. It certainly will get worse, hence Jokowi must give careful thought to what lies ahead. What’s important is the president and his men do what is absolutely necessary to contain the spread of the virus and yet, at the same time, not take any measures that could risk Indonesia’s democracy beyond the crisis. That is a fine balance to maintain, but it can be done