• Monday, Jun 01, 2020
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HRW: End wave of arrests for Covid-19 rumours in Bangladesh

  • Published at 12:29 pm April 1st, 2020
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

The US-based rights group issued a statement on their website in this regard on Tuesday

US-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW) has urged the Bangladesh government to stop targeting academics and arresting people for speaking out about the coronavirus pandemic and ensure accurate and timely information about the virus is accessible and available to all.

In a statement issued on their website on Tuesday, the rights group also raised concerns over the Bangladesh government’s apparent crackdown on silencing those who express concern over the government’s handling of the pandemic.

It also said since mid-March 2020, at least a dozen people, including a doctor, opposition activists, and students, were apparently arrested for their comments about coronavirus, most of them under the Digital Security Act.

“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,” Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director Brad Adams said in the statement. 

“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,” he added.

Monitoring television channels, social media for “propaganda”

At the same time, HRW also raised concerns over a government circular that assigned 15 officials to monitor private television channels, but also all other media, including the social media, for “rumours” and “propaganda” regarding Covid-19.

The statement also noted that two government college teachers were allegedly suspended for posting on social media about the virus, while one researcher has been reportedly put under investigation for publishing a paper projecting the impact of Covid-19 based on epidemiological modeling first presented in an Imperial College report that helped to spur governments to enact policies to contain the spread of Covid-19.

“The Bangladesh paper predicted that by May 28, over 89 million people in Bangladesh could get symptomatic infections and 507,442 could die. Netra News, the agency that broke the news about the report and investigation into its author, has been blocked in Bangladesh since December 29, 2019,” the statement mentioned.

Meanwhile, a leaked interagency United Nations memo on Bangladesh’s Country Preparedness and Response Plan for Covid-19 estimates that up to two million people could die from the disease in Bangladesh if immediate steps are not taken to contain the spread of the virus, HRW said in the statement.

Targeting political opposition

At the same time, the rights group also expressed concerns that members of Bangladesh’s political opposition were also being targeted in this case.

“Under international human rights law, governments have an obligation to protect the right to freedom of expression, including the right to seek, receive, and impart information of all kinds, regardless of frontiers. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put the right itself in jeopardy,” the statement added.

“Instead of combing Facebook and television and arresting people for posting about Covid-19, Bangladesh authorities should focus energy on actually stopping the spread of the virus,” Adams said in the statement. 

“This includes upholding academic freedom and the right to free speech, and ensuring that everyone has access to accurate information about the spread and impact of the virus,” he added.

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