coronavirus global map

In the face of the global health crisis posed by the spread of COVID-19, PEN America is, like so many others, adapting to the new reality we must face together. As an organization committed to truth and facts, we believe it is imperative to prioritize public health while also safeguarding protections for free speech and the flow of vital information. We also believe that this crisis is making plain the absolute necessity of a free press—including local journalism—to ensure public well-being and enable informed decision-making.

We recognize that in these unprecedented times, some infringements on liberty may be necessary to preserve public health; for example, government orders to self-isolate. At the same time, we also recognize that emergencies can provide cover for crackdowns on human rights and lasting expansions of government power. And even well-intentioned, extreme measures that may be currently necessary to stem the virus’s spread could be hard to undo if not accompanied by appropriate safeguards from the start. In the process of making difficult, unprecedented decisions, some public officials may make well-intentioned missteps; for example, by threatening criminal action for spreading false information about the virus; others may use the cover of coronavirus to restrict access to information for the public or the press, or increase surveillance of the public, utilizing the crisis to advance objectives at odds with human rights. In the United States and globally, there is a risk that the coronavirus could become a new “war on terror”—a credible cover for rights restrictions and violations that could long outlast the current threat.

In this moment, it is critical that defenders of free expression and press freedom remain vigilant to the threats that may emerge, both here in the U.S. and around the world. PEN America is committed to tracking, analyzing, and speaking out on these developments to ensure that the pandemic does not become a cover for enduring impairments to free speech and open discourse.

Here are several of the free expression issues that we view as most urgent in this unprecedented moment.