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As if the danger of COVID-19 infection is not the primary concern of Bangladeshi citizens, criticism of the government and politicians in the country is becoming increasingly dangerous. During the first week of May 2020, authorities arrested four people and seven others were indicted for their social media posts and critical drawings of the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
There have been criticisms of the government's lack of preparation and the lack of transparency, management and coordination to deal with the pandemic. As of May 11, there were 15,691 people infected with the virus in Bangladesh, and 239 people have died.
The four people arrested are cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, writer Mushtaq Ahmed, activist Didarul Bhuiyan, and businessman Minhaz Mannan. They were all arrested in accordance with the Digital Security Law.
Ahmed Kishore and Mushtaq Ahmed were sent to prison on May 6, 2020, and Didarul Bhuiyan and Minhaz Mannan were sent to prison on May 7, 2020, after being denied bail.
According to the complaint, the accusations against him include: “intentionally publishing rumors against the parents of the country, the liberation war and the coronavirus pandemic, to negatively affect the image of the nation.”
Would it be wrong if someone says that the authorities in #Bangladesh, equipped with Digital Security Act, launched a crackdown on those critical to the government?
Eleven people were charged with “spreading rumors and carrying out anti-government activities” yesterday!
– Adnan Akib (@iamadnanakib) May 7, 2020
Would it be wrong if someone said that the authorities in Bangladesh, provided with the Digital Security Law, launched an offensive against those who criticized the Government?
Yesterday, eleven people were accused of “spreading rumors and carrying out anti-government activities”!
In the same lawsuit, similar charges were filed against seven people, including foreign journalists, the administrator of a Facebook page, and social media commentators. According to the BBC report in Bengali, more than 50 people have been arrested for spreading rumors about the spread of the coronavirus in Bangladesh since March this year.
These arrests and persecutions represent a serious threat to freedom of expression in the country during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic. Brad Adams, director of Human Right Watch in Asia, said: “It is just an insecure and authoritarian government, using a pandemic to arrest cartoonists, journalists and activists.”
‘Lack of tolerance’ to criticism
Since the beginning of the health crisis, the Government of Bangladesh has maintained that it is well prepared to deal with the coronavirus, but the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the health care of workers and the scandal of N-95 masks exposed the government's mismanagement of this crisis. Furthermore, the government's classification of quarantine as a ‘general holiday‘ sends a confusing message to the public. The latest decisions to reopen textile factories, restaurants and markets while contagion continues to grow have been widely criticized across the country. Many activists believe that journalists and activists are being sued and arrested to create fear in people's minds, to stop criticism of government mismanagement.
In early May, in a chat with the BBC in Bengali, Kaberi Gayen, a professor in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka, said:
এটা কখন হয়? সহিষ্ণুতার এমন অভাব হয়েছে যে তারা (সরকার) সমালোচনা নিতে পারছে পারছে না। যখনই কেউ ভিন্নমত পোষণ করে তখনই মামলা দেয়া হয়, তুলে নেয়া হয়
When does it happen? There is such a lack of tolerance that they (the government) cannot tolerate any criticism. Every time someone disagrees, a report is made and that person is arrested.
Vidyut, an engineering student, tweeted that criticism of the government does not mean opposition to the state:
State and government are different. Being critical of government doesn’t mean they are against the state. It’s a shame that the government is not differentiating between them like most of the autocratic states.#Bangladesh#dailystarnewshttps://t.co/Carhduz4Xd
– Vidyut (@BeingRashedul) May 6, 2020
Cartoonist, writer and activist among four people arrested by the Digital Security Law; 11 defendants in the case.
Ahmed Kabir Kishore, arrested cartoonist for Rapid Action Battalion, Mushtaq Ahmed, writer, and two others – Didarul Islam Bhuiyan, activist for a platform called 'Rashtrachinta', and businessman Minhaz Mannan Emon – under the Digital Security Law, allegedly by publications against the Government on Facebook, in the capital yesterday.
The State and the Government are different. Being critical of the government does not mean that people are against the state. It is a shame that the Government is not differentiating between the two, like most autocratic states.
Suppress freedom of expression
Some, like the cartoonist Kishore, took to social networks, such as Facebook, to criticize the mismanagement and the measures the government has taken to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic.
Left drawing – No ‘! No (in Bengali Korona means no)! (If you do) We will hit you with a broom, you will disappear and we will sue you under the Digital Security Law as an additional. ”
Drawing on the right – ”!Labor Day is great! ” (In the image, a day laborer without work rests and navigates on a laptop, inside his cube with the sign “Work route at home, Karwan Bazaar”).
Md Russell Talukder posted on Facebook more of Kishore's drawings and commented:
People in the talk shows in the television directly and nakedly criticize the government for its policies and underperforming ministers from time to time, and compared to what they say and how they say, the cartoons of Kishore are just symbolic depiction of present realities, which can be coined with different explanations.
If the government's mechanisms are not directed to allow this sort of space to the citizen, it may be a direct violation of freedom of expression at a gross level.
In television talk shows, people openly and frankly criticize the government for its policies and the low performance of ministers, and if we compare what they say and how they say it, the Kishore cartoons are only a representation of those present. realities, which can be coined with different explanations.
If government mechanisms are not directed to allow this type of space for citizens, it can be a direct violation of freedom of expression at a rude level.
On Facebook, Belayet Hossain Mamun, thinks that any kind of criticism of the State is dangerous for a person:
রাষ্ট্রীয় বিষয়ে সমালোচনা করা ব্যক্তির জন্য ঝুঁকিপূর্ণ; এতে আপনার ক্ষতি হতে পারে… এই রকম এক বার্তা পাচ্ছি চারপাশে… কী দুঃখজনক নিমজ্জন…
I receive messages like this everywhere: “it is dangerous for a person to criticize the affairs of the State; it can harm you. ” What a painful deterioration of freedom of expression.
Arrests Increase Under Digital Security Law
According to article 19 of the UK Freedom of Expression Organization, the number of cases and arrests under the 2018 Digital Security Act has increased in Bangladesh. From January 1 to May 7, 60 cases were registered. More than 110 people, including 22 journalists, were arrested in those 60 cases during the same period. In 2019, there were 63 cases under the Digital Security Law, across the country.
In 2018, the Digital Security Act was passed in Bangladesh, replacing the infamous Information and Communication Technologies Act, which was also used as a tool to silence critical online discourse. From the beginning there was strong criticism of this law.
Feroz Ahmed, a left-wing political activist, wrote that freedom of expression in Bangladesh has never been so complicated:
মনে হয় না বাংলাদেশের ইতিহাসে বাকস্বাধীনতা কখনো এত বেশি বাধার মুখে ছিল। (..) ব্যক্তিগতভাবে তাদের কাউকে দোষারোপ করবার কিছু নাই, জনগণের সংগঠনগুলো যদি শক্তিশালী না হয়, কথা বলবার সংস্কৃতিটা কারও কারও ব্যক্তিগত সাহস হিসেবেই থাকবে, সমাজের স্বাভাবিক অভ্যাসে পরিণত হবে না।
I do not think that freedom of expression has ever faced so many obstacles in the history of Bangladesh. There's nothing specific to blame anyone for. If popular organizations are not strong, the culture of expressing itself will remain as the personal courage of some, it will not become a normal habit of society.
Meanwhile, the Government has issued a circular for its officials, which requires them not to upload, comment, like or distribute publications, photos, audios or videos that stain the image of the Government or the State, through social networks. Earlier, on April 18, 2020, the Government Health Department also ordered doctors and nurses not to speak to the media or social media about the coronavirus crisis.
The Government has indicated from the beginning that digital security laws have not been enacted to harass anyone but to protect people from harassment and rumors. Still, the reality is very different.