Freedom of expression in Bangladesh

Scottish PEN expresses its great concern about the clampdown on criticism of the Bangladesh government response to COVID-19 pandemic

May 12, 2020

Scottish PEN expresses its great concern about the clampdown on criticism of the Bangladesh government response to COVID-19 pandemic

The Bangladesh government has instructed officials to refrain from publishing negative commentary or multi-media content on social media against government representatives and institutions amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Issued on Thursday 7 May 2020, the statement also warns government officials to “refrain from posting or sharing content that goes against the interest of the national spirit and unity.” The circular was issued by the Ministry of Public Administration and warned of punitive legal action against violators.

This government statement was published one day after eleven journalists, writers, cartoonists, and social activists were charged under the Digital Security Act (DSA) for “spreading rumors and misinformation on Facebook about the coronavirus situation.” The DSA has been criticized by Amnesty International for criminalising ‘many forms of freedom of expression’, and imposing heavy fines and prison sentences for ‘legitimate forms of dissent’.

Responding to the recent government statement, Ricky Monahan Brown, Trustee at Scottish PEN said:

‘That the government of Bangladesh should be using the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic and the sweeping powers it has awarded itself under the draconian Digital Security Act to clamp down on journalists’ freedom of expression illustrates why we must be particularly watchful of the rights of writers and others around the world in these fast-moving times. Scottish PEN calls for the government of Bangladesh to immediately cease its pattern of arresting and disappearing writers and encouraging a climate of self-censorship’.

Press freedom in Bangladesh

Press freedom in Bangladesh has been an issue for some time. In 2020, the Bangladeshi media’s rank in the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index dropped to 151/180 from its position of 144/180 in 2016.

Commenting in a recent article for Atlantic Council, Dr. Ali Riaz, senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center and Illinois State University Professor, said: ‘The pandemic has laid bare the government’s claim of a stellar record of development and economic growth. COVID-19 is exposing the hollowness of the development strategy pursued by the government for the past decade’.

PEN America has also joined calls to respond to the press freedom crisis by denouncing the disappearance and arrest of Bangladeshi photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol. A PEN America article published on Thursday 7 May stated that the arrest was a ‘blatant attempt to muzzle criticism of the government’ and ‘one instance of many in which artists, writers, and photojournalists have faced persecution and imprisonment in a climate in Bangladesh that is increasingly inimical to free expression’.

On World Press Freedom Day, PEN Bangladesh reaffirmed its commitment to press freedom as well as the right of every individual to freely express their opinions, stating that it ‘deplores any restrictions imposed on this fundamental right by any authority’.

Freedom of information and the COVID-19 pandemic

Press freedom organisations around the world have been highlighting their concerns about the impact of government responses to the pandemic on freedom of expression and information. ARTICLE 19, a British human rights organisation with a focus on defense of freedom of expression, highlighted several threats to governments’ obligations on access to information and public health under human rights law in their recently published report ‘Public’s Right to Know in the COVID-19 Pandemic’.

ARTICLE 19 Head of Transparency David Banisar said: “During the coronavirus pandemic, access to information is more important than ever, as the public need to know exactly what their governments are doing to tackle the crisis…Above all, governments must not use the pandemic as an opportunity to cover up incompetence, corruption or wider human rights abuses.”

Scottish PEN leads the Writers at Risk Committee, which is dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and supporting the organizations that advocate for them. Find out more and sign up to join our Rapid Action Network email list here.

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