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Covid-19 deals mortal blow to freedom of speech

Bangladesh's government is following leads from its Asian counterparts in stifling dissent

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Covid-19 deals mortal blow to freedom of speech

A guard of honor pays tribute to late Awami League leader and former health minister Mohammed Nasim as officials and activists attend his burial at the Banani graveyard in Dhaka on June 14. (Photo: AFP)

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Sirajum Munira, 28, a lecturer at Begum Royeka University in northern Bangladesh, was arrested under the country's controversial Digital Security Act (DSA) on June 14. Her arrest was soon followed by dismissal from her job.

Her crime was a one-line Facebook post that mocked Mohammed Nasim, the former home and health minister who died of Covid-19 on June 13. She later apologized and deleted the post, yet she became one of a string of arrests and abuses over social media posts related to the pandemic.

Munira’s derogatory remarks against Nasim, an influential politician from the ruling Awami League party elected to parliament six times, were inappropriate, but the reason for them is well known. Nasim’s 2014-19 tenure at the health and family welfare ministry was mired in massive corruption, which probably cost him a cabinet post in the current government. His legacy in the health sector continues.

Bangladesh has drawn strong criticism at home and abroad for its inability to stem Covid-19. From its first three reported cases on March 8, the country had recorded 115,786 cases and 1,502 deaths as of June 22.

Much of the blame lies with poor state health services — lack of resources and coordination, poor services, mismanagement and discrimination — that have become more exposed in the time of a pandemic. Even Nasim’s family couldn’t trust the state health services he once led and he was treated in a private facility, but he didn’t survive.

The top brass of the health sector have not only failed to adopt effective policies and courses of action to curb the spread of the virus but have also put the lives of medics in grave danger by not providing high-quality personal protective equipment in time. Media reports busted a syndicate that provided substandard N95 masks for doctors, putting their lives at risk.

Some 3,301 health workers including 1,041 doctors, 901 nurses and 1,360 medical staff have been infected with the coronavirus. About 50 doctors, most of them specialists, have died from Covid-19, according to the Bangladesh Medical Association.

On the other hand, dozens of ruling party leaders and local government officials have been accused of stealing food aid intended for the poor under the government’s relief schemes.

Yet criticizing has become more dangerous than ever as the state and non-state actors are quick to vent anger on whistleblowers to wash their hands.

Since March, some 142 people including journalists have been arrested and abused for reporting and spreading allegedly misinformed news and posting on social media, according to Bangladesh Peace Observatory, a project of Dhaka University. The actual number of people harassed under the DSA is likely to be much higher as the study does not count cases not reported in the media.

The DSA 2018 courted controversy before it was tabled and passed, largely because several sections were extremely repressive and various groups including media big shots opposed it, though in vain. As expected, hundreds of people, mostly journalists, have been charged and arrested under a law which rights groups criticize as a draconian tool to muzzle dissent that conflicts with the constitutional right of freedom of speech.

The fault lines in the law's governance have been blatant during the pandemic, but criticism of the law has triggered aggressive reprisals.

Freedom of speech, a vital pillar of democracy, remains weaker even three decades after the return of parliamentary democracy in Bangladesh.    

Taking a cue from authoritarian regimes

The government in Bangladesh is perhaps following leads from its Asian counterparts in stifling dissent.

In fact, this trend has been evident from the democratically elected governments of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal to the autocratic and military regimes in Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and the Philippines.

Narendra Modi’s right-wing Hindu theocratic regime in India and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan have been accused of harassing and arresting journalists for exposing inept government responses and corruption in handling Covid-19. 

Altogether 12 countries in Asia-Pacific — Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam — have been charged with suppressing the press and social media, prompting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet to express grave concerns on June 3.

Her statement detailed how these countries have made a series of arrests and abuses for the alleged spreading of false information related to the pandemic and urged them to stop abuses immediately.

Bachelet’s call was a reminder that governments are bound to abide by the UN’s International Covenant on Civil Political Rights (ICCPR) signed by 173 member states.

Attacks on free speech and the press have intensified with the rise of populist and far-right political forces into power all over the world in past decades despite many of those countries being signatories of the ICCPR.

In recent years, a number of Asian countries led by nominally democratic but mostly authoritarian regimes have passed repressive laws to control the press and social media in utter disregard of the UN covenant.

It is largely because ruling parties in those countries have crushed political opponents badly, weakened democratic institutions and made the judiciary subservient. The ruling elites consider the free press and largely uncontrollable social media as the last bastions of mortal enemies threatening their hold on power.

The ruling regimes need to keep in mind that such autocratic policies and actions in a largely manipulated political system can yield fruit for some time but are untenable in the long term for development and democratization.

Covid-19 has exposed the hollowness of China’s economic development at the expense of free speech and democracy.

The countries following the Chinese model of development and governance can only expect doomsday in the near future. The sooner the ruling regimes realize this, the better. 

Rock Ronald Rozario is the bureau chief for UCA News in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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