Bangladesh should ensure a free and independent media during the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. State Department said Monday, underlining threats to democratic norms and human rights in various countries during the global health crisis.
In a statement highlighting its actions in different countries, the State Department said that government responses to the pandemic must not be used as a “pretext for repression of persons or ideas.”
With regard to Bangladesh, “the State Department has emphasized the need for a free and independent media as the government uses the Digital Security Act to charge and arrest journalists, cartoonists, doctors, academics and other individuals who have critiqued the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” it said.
It also called for the Bangladesh government “to lift internet and phone restrictions at the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.”
Bangladesh Information Minister Hasan Mahmud said he was aware of the critique.
“I will read the report after going to the office tomorrow and make comments on it – first to Bangladeshi media, not to American media,” he told BenarNews in a phone conversation.
Bangladesh authorities in early April acknowledged blocking BenarNews websites, among actions taken against sites “involved in spreading rumors and misinformation.”
The site was blocked days after it reported on an internal U.N. memo estimating that Bangladesh could see as many as two million deaths as a result of the pandemic.
More recently, rights groups protested the detention of Shafiqul Islam Kajol – a journalist who went missing for 54 days after a ruling party lawmaker filed a defamation case against him. He has been in detention ever since resurfacing on World Press Freedom Day, May 3.
Meanwhile, cartoonist Ahmed Kishore, activists Mushtaq Ahmed and Didarul Bhuiyan and business owner Minhaz Mannan Emon are still in custody after their arrest around that time .
“They have been arrested on charges of spreading anti-government remarks and rumors regarding the coronavirus situation and various law enforcement agencies,” Police Sub-Inspector Jamshedul Alam said in early May.
40 journalists charged
Passed in 2018, the Digital Security Act empowers police to make arrests on suspicion and without warrant. Fourteen of its 20 provisions do not allow for bail, so that whenever an accused is brought before a magistrate, he or she is almost automatically sent to jail.
At least 40 journalists have been charged under the act since the coronavirus pandemic began, an association of newspaper editors in Bangladesh said in a statement on June 31.
“These arrests have created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation making normal journalistic work extremely risky if not nearly impossible,” the statement said.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal said the government had no plan to repeal the law.
“We don’t think it necessary to repeal the Digital Security Act. This law has been framed to protect the citizens from online defamation activities,” he told BenarNews on July 1.
“It is not true that the act is being misused. The persons who have been arrested under the law were involved in posting defamatory remarks on social sites. The aggrieved persons sued them under the law,” he said.
Internet access blocked
In September 2019, citing a deteriorating security situation, the government ordered mobile phone operators to block internet access to Rohingya in and around Cox’s Bazar. In late March, the United Nations joined rights groups in urging the government to remove the blackout from the camps housing hundreds of thousands of Rohingya.
“Humanitarian partners are advocating to the government to re-establish internet connectivity within the camps, to ensure that all refugees have adequate access to information, and to enable communication between partners. Life-saving health interventions require rapid and effective communication,” UNHCR spokeswoman Louise Donovan told BenarNews at the time.
On Monday, the South Asia coordinator of Article 19, a London-based NGO that advocates for free speech worldwide, repeated the call.
“The government and Hasina are praised for providing shelter to Rohingya refugees, but it is wrong to ignore their communication necessities,” Faruq Faisel told BenarNews. “It is urgent to allow refugees to use the internet and mobile phones, which can help them protect themselves amid the coronavirus pandemic.”