The Bangladesh government appears to be cracking down on free speech as COVID-19 hits the country, silencing those who express concern over the government’s handling of the epidemic, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should stop targeting academics and arresting people for speaking out about the coronavirus epidemic, and ensure that accurate and timely information about the virus is accessible and available to all.
Since mid-March 2020, the authorities have apparently arrested at least a dozen people, including a doctor, opposition activists, and students, for their comments about coronavirus, most of them under the draconian Digital Security Act. The Information Ministry announced that it has formed a unit to monitor social media and various television outlets for “rumors” about COVID-19 cases.
“While the government has a responsibility to prevent the spread of misinformation about COVID-19, this doesn’t mean silencing those with genuine concerns or criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should stop abusing free speech and start building trust by ensuring that people are properly informed about plans for prevention, containment, and cure as it battles the virus.”
On March 25, the government issued a circular assigning 15 officials to monitor each television channel for “rumors” and “propaganda” regarding Covid-19. The next day, the order was withdrawn, with Md Mizan Ul Alam, additional secretary of the Information Ministry, explaining that the circular was being expanded: “In fact, the officials will not only monitor the private television channels, but also all other media, including the social media.”
Even academic work is risky. Two government college teachers were allegedly suspended for posting on social media about the virus. One researcher is reportedly under investigation for publishing a paper projecting the impact of COVID-19 based on epidemiological modeling first presented in an Imperial College report that helped to spur governments to enact policies to contain the spread of COVID-19. The Bangladesh paper predicted that by May 28, over 89 million people in Bangladesh could get symptomatic infections and 507,442 could die. Netra News, the agency that broke the news about the report and investigation into its author, has been blocked in Bangladesh since December 29, 2019.
Meanwhile, a leaked interagency United Nations memo on Bangladesh’s Country Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19 estimates that up to two million people could die from the disease in Bangladesh if immediate steps are not taken to contain the spread of the virus.
On March 25, 2020, the Education Ministry put two government college teachers on temporary suspension for posting “provocative” statements and pictures on Facebook “inconsistent with the government’s ongoing integrated activities [to control the coronavirus pandemic].” The government order says the teachers are being suspended for misconduct under the Government Servants (Discipline and Appeal) Rules, 2018 for engaging in activities “against government management, indiscipline and against public interest.”
A number of people have been detained for social media posts. On March 24, the police reportedly arrested two men, Shahidul Islam Russel and Abdul Ahad, and filed a case against a third in Feni all under the Digital Security Act, apparently for spreading rumors on Facebook that a police officer had contracted COVID-19. On March 22, the Detective Branch reportedly arrested two students, Sohel Sheikh Hridoy and Anam Sheikh, in Pirojpur for “spreading rumors” about the Coronavirus on Facebook. On March 19, the Rapid Action Battalion reportedly arrested Meraz al-Sadi in Khulna for “spreading rumors through Facebook posts containing offensive propaganda and various quotes on coronavirus.”
On March 20, police reportedly arrested Saddam Hossain Ovi in Manikganj, under the Digital Security Act, for “spreading rumors” of COVID-19 infections in Manikganj. “It is a rumor – there is no coronavirus-affected patient in the district,” the additional superintendent of police in Manikganj said.
Members of the political opposition are also being targeted. On March 21, the police reportedly arrested Dr. Iftekhar Adnan for “spreading rumors,” after a 35-second audio clip went viral in which Adnan warns his friend over the phone that the death toll from coronavirus in Chattogram is rising and alleges that the government is withholding information. Notably, the police said Adnan is a supporter of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Adnan was apparently arrested under the Digital Security Act, a law that has been repeatedly criticized for being prone to abuse.
On March 22, the police reportedly arrested another BNP supporter, Sumon Sawdagar, in Jamalpur, after he criticized government officials on Facebook for their “irresponsible” remarks about COVID-19. A local ruling Awami League leader allegedly filed the case under the Digital Security Act.
Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put the right itself in jeopardy.
Governments are responsible for providing information necessary to protect and promote rights, including the right to health. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights regards as a “core obligation” providing “education and access to information concerning the main health problems in the community, including methods of preventing and controlling them.” A rights-respecting response to COVID-19 needs to ensure that accurate and up-to-date information about the virus, access to services, service disruptions, and other aspects of the response to the outbreak is readily available and accessible to all.
“Instead of combing Facebook and television and arresting people for posting about COVID-19, Bangladesh authorities should focus energy on actually stopping the spread of the virus,” Adams said. “This includes upholding academic freedom and the right to free speech, and ensuring that everyone has access to accurate information about the spread and impact of the virus.”