Lockdown of expression: civic space restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic as a response to mass protests
During the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments across the globe implemented severe restrictions of civic freedoms to contain the spread of the virus. The global health emergency posed the risk of governments seizing the pandemic as a window of opportunity to curb (potential) challenges to their power, thereby reinforcing the ongoing, worldwide trend of shrinking civic spaces. In this article, we investigate whether and how governments used the pandemic as a justification to impose restrictions of freedom of expression. Drawing on the scholarship on the causes of civic space restrictions, we argue that governments responded to COVID-19 by curtailing the freedom of expression when they had faced significant contentious political challenges before the pandemic. Our results from a quantitative analysis indeed show that countries who experienced high levels of pro-democracy mobilization before the onset of the pandemic were more likely to see restrictions of the freedom of expression relative to countries with no or low levels of mobilization. Additional three brief case studies (Algeria, Bolivia and India) illustrate the process of how pre-pandemic mass protests fostered the im-position of restrictions on the freedom of expression during the pandemic.