Bangladesh: Alarming crackdown on freedom of expression during coronavirus pandemic

Bangladesh: Alarming crackdown on freedom of expression during coronavirus pandemic -

ARTICLE 19 is alarmed by the Bangladesh Government’s crackdown on freedom of expression since the coronavirus pandemic began.

In particular, there has been an upsurge in attacks on media critical of the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in Bangladesh. The Government is increasingly using the deeply flawed Digital Security Act 2018 to harass, charge and arrest journalists. There have also been restrictions on dissent by the public: medical professionals have been told not to talk to the media; social media is being monitored; and government employees have been told not to like, share or comment on social media posts that are critical of the Bangladeshi government.

While the crackdown on freedom of expression has escalated during the pandemic, it also fits in a wider pattern of serious restrictions of critical voices in Bangladesh, where there are currently dozens of journalists, bloggers and activists in prison for simply expressing their opinion.

“It is shocking that during the coronavirus pandemic the government is using the Digital Security Act to prevent journalists from doing their job. This act criminalises freedom of expression and is characterised by vague definitions, broad provisions and sweeping powers,” said Faruq Faisel, Regional Director of ARTICLE 19.

“Both journalists and members of the public must be allowed to express criticism of the Government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic without fear of arrest.

“The government should immediately release all journalists and ensure that the rights to freedom of expression and access to information are respected in Bangladesh.”

Surge in journalist arrests during coronavirus pandemic

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit Bangladesh, there has been a surge in arrests of journalists, activists and others who criticised the Bangladesh Government for its lack of preparedness and poor response to the pandemic. Since the start of the pandemic, 16 journalists have been arrested.

Many have been charged under the 2018 Digital Security Act. It is becoming increasingly difficult for journalists and bloggers to report about the crisis. As well as the arrests outlined below, in April, journalists’ movements were restricted to allegedly stop the spread of coronavirus.

On 6 May, 11 people – including a cartoonist, two journalists and a writer- were charged under the Digital Security Act with “spreading rumours and carrying out anti-government activities”. They were alleged to have posted about, “the coronavirus pandemic to negatively affect the nation’s image and to create confusion among the public through the social media and cause the law and order situation to deteriorate”. Four were remanded in prison; the others are bloggers and journalists who live outside Bangladesh.

The four men in detention are:

  • Ahmed Kabir Kishore: he had his phones and computer confiscated after posting a series of critical satires about alleged corruption in the government’s coronavirus response.
  • Mushtaq Ahmed: he published an article on the shortage of personal protective equipment for doctors
  • Didarul Bhuiyan, an activist with the Humanitarian assistance monitoring committee set up to monitor the government’s humanitarian activities in response to the pandemic. He published a report revealing that the most marginalised groups had received the least amount of government support.
  • Minhaz Mannan Emon, managing director of BLE securities and shareholder-director of Dhaka Stock Exchange. He is the older brother of the slain LGBTQ activist Xulhaz Mannan, also  editor at the country’s only LGBT magazine. Xulhaz was killed in his apartment  in a machete attack by Islamist extremists on 25 April 2016.*

In the same week, three journalists from Dainik Grameen Darpan in Narsingdi have also been arrested: news editor Ramzan Ali Pramanik, staff correspondent Shanta Banik, and online news portal Narsingdi Pratidin publisher and editor Shaon Khondoker Shahin. They were arrested after reporting about the death in custody of a man who broke the lockdown rules.

 

The Forum for Freedom of Expression, Bangladesh (FExB) reported that in April, “nearly two dozen journalists were attacked, intimidated, harassed, or arrested for reporting on pilferage, corruption, and lack of accountability in food aid meant for poor people who are facing extreme hardship during the lockdown”.

Coronavirus and freedom of expression

As well as arrests come as the government is cracking down on any critical voices on the government’s coronavirus response. Human Rights Watch reported that on 7 May, the government issued a circular prohibiting its employees from liking, sharing or commenting on any posts that are critical of the Bangladesh government.

The elite unit of the police, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) is monitoring social media and had by 10 April reportedly arrested 10 people for spreading false information about coronavirus.

Coronavirus and freedom of information

Public access to information during the coronavirus pandemic should be a priority to ensure people know how to protect themselves, what to do in case of emergencies and what regulations are in place. ARTICLE 19  in a new report, Ensuring the Public’s Right to Know in the COVID-19 Pandemic, highlighted governments’ obligations on access to information and public health under human rights law.

Reliable, accurate, and accessible information about the pandemic is essential to reducing the risk of transmission of the virus and to protecting the population against dangerous disinformation.

Amid growing criticism of the response to the coronavirus pandemic, medical personnel have been told not to speak to the media. The pandemic should absolutely not be used to silence whistleblowers, who reveal gaps in public health planning and implementation. They should be fully protected from retribution. Authorities can only use sanctions against those who use the pandemic to conduct illegal or unsafe practices and threaten or harm whistleblowers.

Governments should be transparent about the crisis and make all actions they are taking publicly available. Journalists must be able to criticise the authorities and scrutinise their response to the crisis. In addition, journalists play an important role in informing the public. They can identify new hotspots of the virus, provide information on protective measures, and expose falsehoods.

The 2018 Digital Security Act

The Digital Security Act was passed by the Parliament of Bangladesh to ensure digital security and to help prevent crimes committed on digital platforms. It reinforced a few sections, including the widely criticised section 57, of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which was frequently used to curtail freedom of expression. But the Digital Security Act is even more repressive than the sections it replaced.

We have documented that this year alone, a total of 60 cases have been filed against more than 100 people, including 22 journalists. This is a significant increase compared to 2019 when 63 cases were filed under this law across the country and 2018 (34 cases).

ARTICLE 19 has warned that the act is deeply flawed given its lack of clarity and overly broad definitions. It grants a carte blanche to the Bangladesh Government to make rules around collection and preservation of data and suppress any critical voices. It lacks clear definitions, prohibits criticism of the government and criminalises freedom of expression. It further gives the Digital Security Agency the power to block or remove online information.

Bangladeshi journalists, and national and international human rights organisations have also criticised the act. Amnesty International called the Digital Security Act “an attack on freedom of expression that is even more repressive than the legislation it has replaced”. Human Rights Watch said it “utterly undermines any claim that the government of Bangladesh respects freedom of speech”.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union and the United States have all criticised the act for violating Bangladesh’s international human rights law.

International Human Rights Law

Bangladesh is obliged to ensure the right to freedom of expression, as enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The rights of freedom of expression and access to information may be restricted, but restrictions must be provided by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be necessary and proportionate. Responding to a public health crisis is one of those legitimate aims but that does not give countries authority to waiving freedom of expression rights in total.

Recommendations

The Bangladesh Government must implement the following recommendations without delay:

  • Amend the Digital Security Act 2018 and make sure it is in line with international human rights law and standards.
  • Release all journalists arrested under the Digital Security Act and end the harassment of those reporting on coronavirus.
  • Guarantee freedom of expression to media and social media platforms.

Update

*This statement was updated on May 26. It originally stated that Tasneem Khalil had been arrested.  Khalil has sought asylum and is not living in Bangladesh. Khalil, the editor of Netra News, published a leaked UN memo estimating that two million Bangladeshis could die unless immediate steps were taken to curtail the virus.

The updated statement noted that Minhaz Mannan Emon, managing director of BLE securities and shareholder-director of Dhaka Stock Exchange, has been arrested.