ARTICLE 19 on Monday expressed grave concern over an ‘unprecedented trend of the continuous violation of citizens' right to express and to know’ in Bangladesh during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The UK-based rights body has observed that repetitive lack of coordination, opacity in action planning and acute absence of accountability at the policy-making level to deal with the first and second wave of the pandemic have depended the crisis in the country.
At the same time, the right to information and freedom of expression are constantly being suppressed by various organs of the state, which is contrary to the government's commitment to building a sustainable and inclusive society.
In a statement issued to the media on the eve of the International Day for Universal Access to Information 2021, Mr Faruq Faisel, the regional director for ARTICLE 19 South Asia, said, ‘’The government has used various excuses to curtail the right to information and the freedom of the media to an alarming level.
"Even the government has often come up with inaccurate and inconsistent information on overall crisis management, health care and vaccination. Instead of acknowledging the reports of irregularities and corruption in the health sector published in the media, the government has resorted to repression against the media and journalists. Disappointingly, the centennial Official Secrets Act of the colonial period, including the deeply flawed Digital Security Act (DSA) of 2018, are being used to do so.’’
ATICLE 19, which regularly monitors and records violations of freedom of expression through media monitoring in Bangladesh, recorded 172 cases filed under the DSA from January 2021 to August in 2021.
Three hundred and eight people of different classes and professions, including 41 journalists, have been charged in those cases. Of them, 114 were arrested immediately, many of whom are still awaiting bail. In 2020, 197 cases filed against 368 people were recorded.
Earlier, the number of cases recorded in 2019 and 2018 was 63 and 34 respectively. Most of the victims of these cases are still being in the custody and harassed as the trials have not been completed.
Faruq Faisel further said, "To obtain information is a fundamental right of citizens. Similarly, citizens have an equal right to protection and privacy of their personal data. However, there are often disturbing incidents like eavesdropping on private mobile phones and secret phone conversations being leaked.
"On top of that, there are obvious symptoms to grow fear that the proposed "Personal Data Protection Act" would be used as a tool to control dissent in the name of protecting personal data and further impede independent expression."
Noting that there is no alternative to ensuring the right to information and freedom of expression in achieving goal number 16 (Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions) of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Faruq Faisel said, "The constitution of Bangladesh protects the right to information and fundamental freedoms of the people. Bangladesh is also a signatory to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). We once again call on the government to strive to fulfill these commitments made by Bangladesh at the national and international levels."