The Bangladesh government has resorted once again to its notorious Digital Security Act-2018to muzzle freedom of expression, suing 11 individuals and arresting four of them following criticism of in the governments’ handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Four people have been detained since 5 May 2020 under the draconian digital law, including cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, writer Mushtaq Ahmed, IT specialist Md. Didarul Islam Bhuyan, and Dhaka Stock Exchange Director Minhaz Mannan Emon. A further seven people have been charged.
All four detainees were forcibly disappeared for hours after they were picked up by the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) from different locations in Dhaka on 5 May 2020. Following a social media outcry, the RAB officially handed them over to the Metropolitan police on 6 May at around 7:45 PM, and a case under the Digital Security Act filed against them by Abu Bakar Siddique, the Deputy Assistant Director of RAB. They remain in detention.
The seven other individuals accused in the same case are Tasneem Khalil, Editor-in-Chief of Netra News, which the government has blocked in Bangladesh since it was launched last year from Sweden; Saer Zulkarnain; Shahed Alam; Ashik Imran; Shapan Wahed; Philip Schuhmacher; and Asif Mohiuddin, a blogger of Bangladeshi origin living in Germany.
All 11 have been charged under various provisions of the Digital Security Act including ‘propaganda or campaign against liberation war’ and ‘publishing, sending of offensive, false or fear inducing data-information’. Authorities have confirmed that the charges relate to allegedly ‘spreading rumours’ over the coronavirus pandemic on social media. If convicted, they could each face up to seven years in jail.
The Digital Security Act, passed in October 2018 to replace the often-misused Information and Communication Technology Act, included harsher provisions that have been used to penalize criticism of the government. The law gives the power to security agencies to hold individuals indefinitely in pretrial detention. And, it has created a chilling effect among activists and journalists. Despite repeated calls to bring the law in line with Bangladesh’s international commitments to protect freedom of expression, the government has refused to revise the law.
In times of crisis, people’s health depends at minimum on access to information both off and online. Silencing journalists and activists and blocking websites, is not an effective public health strategy. We urge the authorities to end its use of restrictive laws to silence critics and amid the pandemic ensure the right to seek, receive, and share information relevant to the COVID-19 outbreak.
We further call on the government of Bangladesh to immediately release the detained critics and drop the charges brought against them and seven other individuals under repressive legislation. The COVID-19 pandemic is not an excuse to use state forces to stifle freedom of expression.
The pandemic has exposed failings by the government in addressing a public health emergency. Patients with symptoms of COVID-19 were denied access to public and private hospitals and died without treatment. The country’s healthcare system failed to provide adequate protective equipment and necessary infrastructures in hospitals to treat the pandemic. Within weeks, hundreds of doctors and nurses were infected with COVID-19, according to the Bangladesh Medical Association.
Persistent suppression of freedom of expression and censorship under the government of Sheikh Hasina has continued amid the pandemic. The authorities have blocked international news outlet Al-Jazeera and numerous other news portals and websites critical of the state. A monitoring body established by the Ministry of Information to monitor if private television channels were “running any propaganda or rumours about the novel coronavirus outbreak” was scrapped after public outcry.
Due to the muzzling of the press by the authorities, social media has become the preferred platform for those critical of the regime. In response, the police and the RAB have started picking up people for their Facebook posts. On 10th of April 2020, it was reported that at least 50 people were arrested in the country for allegedly spreading rumors. The government has also blocked dozens of websites and Facebook profiles as of late March after the government officially acknowledged the COVID-19 outbreak. Healthcare workers, who spoke out about the problems they have been facing, have been barred from talking to media.