(New York) – Bangladesh authorities have arrested four people and charged seven others for “spreading rumors and misinformation on Facebook,” because they criticized the government’s response to Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately drop all charges, which appear to violate freedom of expression, release the four people in custody, and repeal the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA).
According to the First Information Report (FIR) filed with Ramna Police Station, the 11 are being charged under the overbroad and widely misused Digital Security Act for “knowingly posting rumors against the father of the nation, the liberation war, and the coronavirus pandemic to negatively affect the nation’s image,” and to “cause the law and order situation to deteriorate.”
“It is only an insecure and authoritarian government that uses a pandemic to arrest cartoonists, journalists, and activists,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of filing cases that could result in life imprisonment simply for posting satire, the ruling Awami League should take note of the criticism and try to address any gaps in the government’s response to Covid-19.”
Ahmed Kabir Kishore, a cartoonist; Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer and activist; Didarul Bhuiyan, an activist; and Minhaz Mannan Emon, director of the Dhaka Stock Exchange, are in custody. The others facing charges are Tasneem Khalil and Shahed Alam, journalists; Asif Mohiuddin, a blogger; and Saer Zulkarnain, Ashiq Imran, Philipp Schumacher, and Swapan Wahed – all of whom live outside Bangladesh. The authorities also have brought charges against 5 or 6 “unnamed” individuals.
The cases were filed amid the government’s ongoing crackdown on those who speak out against its handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The government issued a circular on May 7, banning all government employees from posting, “liking,” sharing, or commenting on any content which might “tarnish the image of the state” or the government’s “important persons,” warning that violation of this order would result in legal action. The authorities have increased surveillance of anyone who might spread “rumors,” and has ramped up media censorship. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the country’s primary counterterrorism unit, recently formed a “cyber verification cell” to identify Covid-19 “rumors.” The police said the RAB-3 cyber team discovered the “I am Bangladeshi” Facebook page, which is at the center of these charges.
RAB officers raided Kishore’s home and confiscated his phone and computers, allegedly finding “evidence” that he is “spreading rumors to create confusion by drawing cartoons of ruling-party leaders.” Kishore had recently posted a series of cartoons on Facebook titled Life in the Time of Corona, which included critical satire of the ruling party and allegations of corruption in the government’s Covid-19 response.
Ahmed had recently published an article criticizing the shortage of personal protective equipment for doctors. Bhuiyan, a key organizer in the activist organization Rashtrochinta, has been a vocal critic of the government’s Covid-19 policies and is part of a recently-formed committee monitoring corruption and failures in the government’s response. In an inaugural news conference on April 30, 2020, the committee alleged inconsistencies and mismanagement in relief aid allocations, saying the poor were being left behind.
The police complaint alleges Khalil instigated much of the offensive content, accusing him of spreading “fake news and abusive comments on Facebook about the father of nation, the liberation war, the coronavirus pandemic,” and writing about the “security agencies and the military” to “damage the country’s image.”
Khalil is the editor of Netra News, an online news site that has been blocked inside Bangladesh since December 2019 after reporting allegations of corruption against a cabinet minister. Netra News recently published a leaked interagency United Nations memo estimating that up to two million people could die in Bangladesh unless immediate steps were taken to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
The 11 have been charged under Sections 21, 25, 31, and 35 of the Digital Security Act (DSA). Section 21 criminalizes “any propaganda or campaign” against the liberation war, “the father of the nation, the national anthem, or the national flag” and carries a sentence of up to a life in prison. Section 25 criminalizes publishing “offensive or fear inducing” information or any content “tarnishing the image of the nation,” carrying a sentence of up to 5 years in prison. Section 31 criminalizes publishing any content that disrupts “communal harmony” or “threatens to deteriorate law and order,” carrying a punishment of up to 10 years.
The Digital Security Act has been repeatedly criticized by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United States, the European Union, journalists in Bangladesh, and many others for violating Bangladesh’s commitments under international law. 311 members of Bangladesh civil society issued a joint statement calling for the government to uphold free speech and to release those held under the Digital Security Act.
There are serious allegations that RAB officials forcibly disappeared Ahmed and Bhuiyan and held them in secret detention before handing them over to the police. The First Information Report of the arrest says that Ahmed was arrested in the morning of May 5 and Bhuiyan was arrested on May 6. However, their families say that they had been picked up days earlier by men in civilian clothes claiming to be from RAB-3.
Bhuiyan’s brother-in-law told the media that their family and some colleagues were having their Ramadan evening meal on the evening of May 5 at Bhuiyan’s residence in Badda, Dhaka, when 7 or 8 men knocked on the door and identified themselves as RAB-3. The men collected Bhuiyan’s laptop, two computers, and mobile phone, and took him away in a black microbus. When the family inquired about his whereabouts, however, RAB officials told them that Bhuiyan was not in their custody.
According to his wife, Lipa Akhter, Ahmed was allegedly picked up from his home in Lalmatia, Dhaka, on May 4 by men claiming to be from RAB-3. However, RAB officers denied having Ahmed in their custody. About 24 hours later, Akhter said she “received a call from the Ramna Police Station saying my husband is with them and that I was to come over to the station and give him food.”
RAB has long been accused of serious human rights violations, including killings, torture, and enforced disappearances. Human Rights Watch has called for RAB to be disbanded and replaced with a rights-respecting force.
These arrests follow an April 9 government directive dropping media from the list of emergency services that would remain exempt from lockdown restrictions. Benar news and other websites were blocked in Bangladesh after reporting on criticism of the government's response to Covid-19. The government ordered all government hospital nurses to refrain from speaking to the media without prior permission and cracked down on doctors for speaking out over a lack of personal protective equipment and resources. Hundreds of doctors have tested positive for the virus.
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. This includes the freedom to criticize the government and public figures and institutions. Permissible restrictions on freedom of expression for reasons of public health may not put the right itself in jeopardy.
“It is vital for the Bangladesh government to recognize that freedom of speech is key in the battle against Covid-19,” Adams said. “The government should stop harassing journalists, activists, doctors, and nurses for voicing concern and instead address the urgent need for aid, transparency, and resources that have them raising the alarm in the first place.”