Updated at 5:10 p.m. ET on 2020-04-03
Bangladesh authorities indicated Friday that they had blocked BenarNews, nearly two days after the online portal became inaccessible in the South Asian country, amid what is believed to be a crackdown on criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
BenarNews is an online affiliate of Radio Free Asia, a U.S. government-funded group that provides uncensored and reliable news and information to audiences in Asia.
The Bengali and English sites of BenarNews have been inaccessible inside Bangladesh since Thursday morning (local time), but government officials have not directly confirmed the action or issued any notification. But they did confirm that several websites had been blocked for “spreading rumors and misinformation.”
Asked Friday why BenarNews had evidently been blocked, Telecommunications Minister Mustafa Jabbar said there was a reason for the action, and urged the online portal to appeal to get it reversed.
“Of course there is a reason for blockage. You better ask them to apply at the BTRC for reopening,” he told a BenarNews reporter in Dhaka, referring to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.
“We blocked some sites involved in spreading rumors and misinformation. There are very few news sites blocked,” Jabbar said, replying to a question about how many sites had been blocked by the government since the outbreak of COVID-19.
Contacted by BenarNews, BTRC chairman Jahurul Haque refused for a second day to give any information on which sites had been blocked.
“We do not block sites with our own decision. The government has a policy of blockage. When different agencies send requests, we block the sites. I cannot specifically tell which are the sites blocked,” he said.
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 voicing 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).
BenarNews adheres to a strict code of journalistic ethics and “responsible reporting," said Kate Beddall, managing editor.
"Our journalists and editors are scrupulous in making sure content is well-sourced and balanced," she said. "At a time when people are in urgent need of timely, reliable information on the coronavirus pandemic, blocking an online news network that provides just that is a disservice to Bangladeshis.”
On Friday, health officials in Bangladesh confirmed five new infections, for a total of 61, and six deaths. Bangladesh’s confirmed death toll was five one week ago.
A number of sites had been blocked
When contacted Thursday, Jabbar said a number of sites had been blocked by the BTRC, which his ministry oversees. But he refused to say whether BenarNews was among them, and advised contacting intelligence agencies for confirmation.
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.”
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 last 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.
When BenarNews interviewed Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen on the memo, 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.