Bangladesh Blocks Several Websites amid COVID-19 Crisis

BenarNews staff
200402-BD-soldiers1-1000.jpg Soldiers patrol along a street in Dhaka during a government-imposed lockdown as a preventive measure against the coronavirus pandemic, March 26, 2020.

Authorities in Bangladesh have moved to block several websites, a minister said Thursday, two days after the police warned of a clampdown on sites whose reports are based on rumors amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Bengali and English editions of BenarNews, a U.S. government-funded online news portal, were not accessible in Bangladesh on Thursday, and officials would not confirm that they were among those blocked by the government action.

There was also no official notification from the government that it had blocked the website of BenarNews, whose mission is to provide readers with “accurate news and information” adhering to a strict code of journalistic ethics.

BenarNews is an online affiliate of Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded private, nonprofit corporation that provides uncensored and reliable news and information to audiences in Asia.

The Bangladesh action came amid concerns expressed by U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) this week that the government appeared to be cracking down on those who were expressing concern over the government’s handling of the epidemic.

Health authorities in the nation of 165 million people are testing for COVID-19 at an alarmingly low rate compared with many other countries, according to a local news report this week that cited testing data from the state-run Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR).

When contacted by BenarNews on Thursday, Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar said a number of sites had been blocked by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), which his ministry oversees. But he refused to say whether BenarNews was among them.

“Actually I cannot specifically tell you that BenarNews is blocked,” he said. “I cannot remember whether BenarNews is in the list of blocked sites.”

“It is not the duty of the minister to remember the names of the sites listed for closure,” he told BenarNews. “We ask the BTRC to block the sites, which the intelligence agencies examine and suggest for blocking. You better contact the intelligence agencies.”

On Tuesday, Bangladesh police said they had detained an undisclosed number of people in various parts of the country over allegations of spreading rumors about the coronavirus, and indicated that action was being planned against more than 100 websites and social media accounts.

The police said in a statement that a list of 50 social media accounts had been sent to the BTRC for action against them and “we are also working at the moment to identify and locate people involved in spreading rumors from 82 other accounts, pages and sites.”

So far, Bangladeshi health authorities have confirmed 56 cases of the coronavirus and six deaths from the contagious disease, but critics have suggested that the actual numbers of infected people in the South Asian nation could be significantly higher.

A leaked draft of a United Nations memo has warned that up to 2 million people could die of the coronavirus in Bangladesh if the government does not take appropriate action to stem the virus in the densely populated country, according to a report from an investigative website.

BenarNews had carried the report, which was published over the weekend by NetraNews, a Sweden-based non-profit news portal covering Bangladesh. NetraNews quoted the World Health Organization’s country chief, Bardan Jung Rana, as saying that the memo was written jointly by U.N. agencies including WHO, the Bangladesh government and development partners.

The memo was reportedly circulated last week among diplomats in Dhaka.

BenarNews interviewed Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen on the memo and he called the leak “a total violation of the U.N. charter.”

According to its rules, the U.N. should have consulted the host government before finalizing any statement, Momen told BenarNews.

“They can only circulate [the document] if the host government approves [it],” he said, adding, “They have not shared the document with us.”

Since mid-March, 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, HRW said in a statement on Tuesday.

“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.”

Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal rejected the statement from Human Rights Watch, telling BenarNews that the government was engaged in fighting coronavirus and not aiming to suppress free speech.


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