The Debate | Opinion

Bangladesh Is Suppressing Free Speech During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The crackdown on dissent during the crisis is part of a larger pattern from the Awami League government.

By AKM Wahiduzzaman for
This article is free

The Diplomat has removed paywall restrictions on our coverage of the COVID–19 crisis.

Bangladesh Is Suppressing Free Speech During the COVID-19 Pandemic
Credit: Pixabay

A recent UN interagency memo, led by the World Health Organization, said that Bangladesh was ill-prepared to tackle the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The internal memo, issued on March 26, warned that the country’s health system would collapse during the first wave of the pandemic. The memo, which was later published by the Sweden-based investigative news site Netra News, also noted that if the government did not take adequate action, up to 2 million would die.

Bangladesh’s government chose to react by punishing Netra News for publishing the memo.

On April 9,  three men from an elite intelligence agency of Bangladesh visited Naznin Khalil, the mother of Netra News’ Editor-in-Chief Tasneem Khalil, in Sylhet, 250 kilometers northeast of Dhaka. The men asked the elderly woman, who is a known Bengali poet, to call up her son in Sweden, asking him to stop publishing reports that “tarnish the image of Bangladesh.”

On social media and private television channels, the government initiated a campaign to discredit the UN internal memo as a “rumor” floated by “anti-state activists.”

The intelligence agents visited Naznin Khalil right after Bangladesh’s Information Minister Hasan Mahmud threatened citizens with stern actions if they spread “rumors” about coronavirus in Bangladesh. He specifically mentioned that the government was capable of action “no matter whether the rumors are spread from home or abroad.”

By all accounts, the report published by Netra News served the purpose of public service journalism. The citizens in Bangladesh deserve to know all accurate information about the threat of COVID-19  and the preparedness of the health sector during this pandemic.

Suppressing information about COVID-19 rather than disseminating information to the public about the disease has been a pattern for the current Awami League government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Any information that embarrasses her government is being discredited as a “rumor.”

Citizens’ discontent is growing; so is the government’s oppression of critical voices.

At least three government officials, two college teachers, and a doctor were stripped of their responsibilities after criticizing the government handling of the COVID-19 crisis on social media.

Due to ongoing endemic corruption in the government apparatus, the doctors were supplied with low-quality personal protective equipment (PPE).

Many doctors and nurses are unhappy about this. At least 170 doctors and 130 other health workers have been infected with COVID-19 so far. A local English newspaper, the Daily Star, reported that the percentage of infection among medical staff in Bangladesh is higher than in some countries badly hit by the pandemic.

A doctor seeking anonymity told the daily that “doctors have serious doubts about the quality of PPEs, especially masks, provided by the authorities concerned.”

However, they can’t raise their voices as doctors were intimidated and show-caused for speaking out. Reports from the ground say agents from intelligence agencies are visiting hospitals to intimidate authorities and directing healthcare professionals not to talk to the media.

In a recent report, Human Rights Watch observed that “since mid-March 2020, the authorities have 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.”

Amnesty International noted: “The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of freedom of expression and imposes hefty fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately.”

The government even tried to install 15 government officials as monitors at Bangladeshi private television channels to see if those channels “were running any propaganda or rumors about the novel coronavirus outbreak.” However, amid an outcry, the plan was scrapped.

The fact that the Bangladeshi regime is suppressing its citizens due to the COVID-19 pandemic has already been reported.

This is part of a persistent pattern on the part of the current regime, which has hewed autocratic all along. Hasina’s government is responsible for the disappearance of around a thousand opposition activists, including former ministers and parliamentarians, journalists, and academics, in the past 10 years. Some of them have returned but most are still missing.

Shaifiqul Islam Kajol, a photojournalist, went missing in March, after politicians associated with the ruling party filed a case against him under the Digital Security Act.

While international agencies, including the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank, and the IMF have been lauding the economic growth of Bangladesh, they have remained mum about the awful rights situations in the country.

However, the outbreak of COVID-19 has forced the country into a unique crisis. The poor already are taking to streets for food; unpaid garment workers are blocking the streets demanding unpaid wages. Bangladeshi migrant workers, who sent home $15 billion in remittances in 2019, are returning en masse.

The government of Bangladesh should focus more on transparency and accountability rather than oppressing and intimidating journalists and health care professionals.

AKM Wahiduzzaman is an Assistant Professor at a Bangladeshi University currently living in exile in Malaysia.

Editor’s note: After publication of this piece, Mohammad Ziauddin, Ambassador of Bangladesh to the U.S., sent the following comment:

The author … erroneously claims that Bangladesh is suppressing information about COVID-19. Bangladesh’s nine national newspapers, more than 300 local newspapers and more than 30 privately owned television networks are free to report all COVID-19 news, including criticisms of the government. The government makes its virus-related actions public here. What’s more, the author is wrong when he contends healthcare professionals are being silenced. In the few instances that Bangladesh authorities have arrested individuals over COVID-19 issues, the reason has related to libel, slander and the spreading of incorrect information that inflicted harm on the public.