Freedom of expression is vital during Covid-19
The world is passing through a cataclysmic phase. Fear, anxiety and uncertainty have gripped the nations. The ways of life that were taken for granted have suddenly become tenuous. Covid-19 has put governments under stress in charting out their responses: some appear to have succeeded in containing the contagion, at least for the time being—others, including in some of the most powerful states in the world, are still struggling to "flatten the curve".
The national authorities have adopted different kinds of strategies to combat the pandemic. Some have been quick and upfront and have been largely successful in limiting the spread of the virus. Farsightedness, efficiency, transparency, accountability, and engagement of the citizenry have been the cornerstone of their success. Others have seen massive spread with a sharp spike in the proverbial "curve" that refuses to even out. The people of these states pay the price as their leaders remain complacent, inefficient, non-transparent and unaccountable, and refuse to recognise the value of people's participation.
Along with international solidarity, the situation calls for firm national unity. There is an urgent need for reinforcement of the social contract between the state and the people. This necessitates an acknowledgement by those in state power that the pandemic can only be confronted through an effective participation of the citizens and harnessing their collective strength. A precondition for forging such unity is upholding the rights of citizens including that of freedom of expression. Unfortunately, during this crisis, the right to freedom of expression has suffered a major setback in several countries.
It has been alleged that the Chinese government initially withheld basic information about the disease from the public, underreported the cases of infection downplaying its severity, and dismissed the likelihood of transmission between humans. On charges of "rumour-mongering", the authorities detained those who reported in social media. It also intimidated the doctor who warned about the deadly nature of the virus. In Hungary, its far-right nationalist prime minister has assumed near-dictatorial powers that allow him to substantially curtail freedom of expression.
The Thai government came down heavily on the whistleblowers in the public health sector as well as online journalists by bringing about retaliatory lawsuits and intimidation. In Niger, Cambodia and Venezuela, journalists have faced arrest, detention threats and assault after reporting on the pandemic.
Instead of upholding the right to freedom of expression, authorities in these countries and others have taken action against journalists, healthcare workers and whistleblowers. In short, the Covid-19 pandemic has been accompanied by a propensity "to unleash formidable executive power".
It appears that the ruling elite in Bangladesh have also taken an approach of suppressing opinions and narratives that reflect lived experiences of ordinary citizens affected by the pandemic. Those include non-availability and restricted supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), corruption in procurement of medical supplies, misappropriation of humanitarian assistance and the like. Lack of coordination and inefficiency, coupled with non-transparency in the official response to the crisis, has made people nervous. Citizens feel insulted by the insensitive and preposterous claims by some of those in positions of authority.
The following examples of threat, intimidation and detention provide an idea about the highhanded nature of state response to the active citizens who are merely exercising their constitutional right to freedom of expression. They are doing so by disseminating their thoughts or sharing experiences in social platforms.
Shahin Mondol, a garments worker of Ashulia, posted a video in Facebook criticising laying off of workers in many garment factories in this critical time. He also made comments about the role of the BGMEA leadership and the labour minister. The video was shared instantly by many. Mondol was subsequently arrested by RAB 11 on April 18 on charges of "fomenting instability and threatening public order".
On April 18, Dr Abu Taher of Noakhali Hospital was served with a show cause notice following his post in Facebook in which he criticised the health secretary's statement on the availability of PPE. The doctor was accused of "generating and inciting to generate dissatisfaction, misunderstanding and malice" amounting to misconduct, a punishable offence. Rejecting the charges, the doctor stood by his word that neither he nor any of his colleagues in the department received a single N95 mask.
In a notification on April 15, the nursing and midwifery directorate reminded its employees that they should refrain from sharing their views in public or with the media without authorisation from the higher authorities.
Media workers have been particularly hard hit. From March 1 to April 10, at least six journalists were prosecuted under the Digital Security Act including editors of daily Manab Zamin and news portals bdnews24.com and jagonews24.com. Actions against them were taken following the lodging of complaints by ruling party stalwarts including a member of parliament. Journalists have also been subjected to beating and torture for reporting cases of irregularities in distribution of humanitarian assistance including misappropriation by locally influential individuals mostly belonging to the ruling party. In other instances, journalists were implicated in false cases.
On March 24, the ministry of information issued a circular assigning officials to "monitor" 30 private television channels to see if those were putting out "rumours and misinformation on Covid-19 outbreak" with the purported aim of "shutting those down" if need be. A revised circular was issued subsequently, informing about the setting up of a cell at the ministry to monitor all media including social media platforms to check whether "rumours and misinformation" about Covid-19 are circulated.
On March 31, the Media and Public Relations department of Bangladesh Police, through a text message, noted that "on the ground of spreading rumours on coronavirus, police have asked Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission to shut down fifty social media accounts." On April 10, the BBC reported that targeting social media platforms, 50 persons were arrested by the police and RAB. Human Rights Watch noted that it is the dissenters who became the major target. The law minister binned such assertions and explained that some of those detained "were engaged in sabotage and were trying to take advantage of the situation."
The threat of intimidation has also taken a toll on academic and intellectual freedom in which self-censorship is becoming the order of the day. Three lecturers of different government colleges have been suspended for writing about Covid-19 on social media. A lecturer of BRAC University is under investigation for engaging in epidemiological research on Covid-19 in Bangladesh.
Human health does not depend only on the availability of healthcare facilities. It also entails access to accurate information about the nature of threats and the means to protect oneself. The right to freedom of expression "includes the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, through any media" and it "applies to everyone, everywhere, and may only be subject to narrow restrictions."
It is, therefore, incumbent on the government to provide reliable information in accessible formats for all including access to the internet. In an emergency condition, access to information is of prime importance. Therefore, any form of broad restriction on the use of internet, such as slowing down of speed or blockage, cannot be justified on the grounds of public order or national security.
The media serves a crucial function in times of public health emergency by informing the public and monitoring government actions. It is incumbent on any government committed to people's wellbeing to make "exceptional efforts to protect the work of journalists".
No one can underestimate the harm that fake information can mete out in such trying times. In order to address disinformation, the government should set up a credible and accountable public messaging system. The innovative proposal of Shorbojonkatha, a civil society platform, for the government to set up an open website in which citizens will be able to report their concerns about health and safety issues, distribution of humanitarian assistance, quality of services of government and civil society actors and the like, merits serious consideration. Such a platform will allow the state authorities to check the veracity of the complaints/reports and take remedial action. It will also bring the state closer to the people.
The oft-resorted measures of taking down contents and imposing censorship may limit access to important information. Attempts to criminalise information relating to the pandemic may "create distrust in institutional information, delay access to reliable information and have a chilling effect on freedom of expression."
In facing the Covid-19 scourge, Bangladesh like the rest of the world faces an uncharted route. Time has come for those at the helm of the state to acknowledge the importance of people's engagement in facing the challenge. An effective participation demands strengthening of the social contract, and that entails unreserved respect for the right to freedom of expression of the citizenry.
C R Abrar is an academic with interest in human rights. He acknowledges the support of Rezaur Rahman Lenin.