The Pandemic and the Fate of Freedom in Bangladesh

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So how did we reach this point where freedom is so fragile?  I argue that the problem goes beyond the government and its multimodal efforts of suppressing critics by force, law and through promoting fear. The problem is deeply rooted in the society, and in some sections of the international community; they too are very much part of Bangladesh’s problem of authoritarianism.

Before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bangladesh and wider South Asia experienced an illiberal, populist and authoritarian wave with the ‘Freedom of the World Report’ ranking South Asian countries, except for India, in the category of partly-free to not free.

The Pandemic, the fear, the embarrassing healthcare situation, the lockdown and the culture of pre-existing authoritarian mindset within the government structures have resulted in unprecedented harassment of those who practised their right to raise demands for a reasonable healthcare system.

We all know that political culture in South Asia serves the rich, elites and politically connected groups better, and most of those affluent go to the Western countries for receiving treatment. As a result, health expenditure remains embarrassing. A report claims, “the health expenditure in South Asia as a percentage of GDP is low at 3.5% while [the] global average stands at 10.02%.”

Before the onset of the pandemic, the Bangladeshi health-sector was not in good shape. An established trend among the business and political elites was to travel to Bangkok, Singapore, UK, the US for health treatment. On another front, Bangladesh is a country lauded by the World Bank, the IMF and development specialists as a development wonder. In the first quarter of 2019, Bangladesh’s was the world’s seventh fastest-growing economy with a rate of 7.3% real GDP annual growth.  It is among the world’s largest textile exporter. Recently a report claimed that Bangladesh is everyone’s economic darling.

However, when the pandemic hit, and international travel was not possible, special units and hospitals were prioritising “important people.” For that reason, criticism of the government’s approach to the pandemic has surfaced from various part of the society. However, the state came down so heavily on the critics that an Atlantic Council commentary termed it as a ‘Pandemic of Persecution in Bangladesh’.

For example, On 6 May, 11 people — including a cartoonist, two journalists and a writer — were charged under the Digital Security Act with “spreading rumours and carrying out anti-government activities”. They were alleged to have posted about, “the coronavirus pandemic to negatively affect the nation’s image and to create confusion among the public through the social media and cause law and order situation to deteriorate”.

Among them, two of the journalists don’t even live in Bangladesh.

Previously, Amnesty International has observed that “the Digital Security Act (DSA) criminalises many forms of freedom of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately.”

During the pandemic as people got frustrated with the health sector, they were voicing criticism of government response, poor quality of protective gear due to corruption. More journalists and others, including a teenage child, was arrested for criticising the government.  Moreover, a female university faculty was arrested and sent to prison for mocking a former health minister from the ruling party who played down the threat of the virus but died from it.

A Bangladesh-based researcher recently wrote in his report that some of the cases filed under the DSA show that the accused was first forcibly disappeared for a temporary period and then arrested under the Act.

While the pandemic rages, private institutions too are found to suppress critical voices. For example, a private university in Bangladesh, which is part of George Soros’s Open Society University Network reportedly came down heavily on a researcher who in the early days of the pandemic have outlined some possible deadly scenarios if the government does not take action in his paper jointly published with James P Grant School of Public Health.

The university issued a letter where the Dean found to distance the university from the publication and threatened to investigate the researcher since the researcher did not take permission from the Dean and university to publish it. Still, later the university  removed the paper from the document hosting site Scribd on copyrights ground. That means the university was, in this case, acting to protect the image of the government.

Another university that was a recipient of some grant money from National Endowment for Democracy to promote civic education expelled two students who were later arrested and released for staging a protest to reduce tuition fees since the classes went online, and sought support to buy internet connection and devices from that university to attend classes.

So how did we reach this point where freedom is so fragile?  I argue that the problem goes beyond the government and its multimodal efforts of suppressing critics by force, law and through promoting fear. The problem is deeply rooted in the society, and in some sections of the international community; they too are very much part of Bangladesh’s problem of authoritarianism.

In one of earlier my studies titled who suppresses free speech in Bangladesh: A typology of actors, I have demonstrated that apart from the government, a section of the Bangladeshi society including, journalists, academics, businessmen, political parties, secular and Islamist activists actively suppress difference of opinion.

Don’t get me wrong, many of these actors, except probably Islamists, support and defend free speech too. However, I argued in that paper that there is a long history in the country, where apparently progressive actors of society contribute to suppressing free speech. We have seen that during the pandemic, many academics and journalists supported those arrests in social media. The reason behind such behaviour I argue that is tied with clientelist politics in Bangladesh where resource and power are not equally distributed; therefore, many members of the middle-class act to defend the interests of their patrons (here the ruling party and the state) for material gains.

Some of the other factors for dwindling freedom included the growth of the internet, increasing use of smartphones and social media apps like Facebook. Worldwide, expansion of these products has further contributed into the expansion of new businesses and companies who, under the banner of start-ups or regular companies, reportedly saw a boom in their sell of digital surveillance products, including military graded Spywares, to authoritarian regimes including Bangladesh.

Besides, the rise of partisan and patriotic journalism, and an over-emphasis on unequal economic growth and something called “strategic interests” over rights and freedom by key liberal democracies and the Bretton Woods organisations further contributed to the ongoing assault on activists and dwindling freedom. With consultants, PR agencies, and lobbyists living in liberal democracies joining in bolstering the image of the narratives of Bangladeshi progress, the issue of freedom becomes complicated and lost.

 

Mubashar Hasan is a Sydney-based author and researcher. He is an Adjunct Fellow at the Humanitarian and Development Research Initiative, University of Western Sydney, Australia. His book Islam and Politics in Bangladesh: The followers of Ummah was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2020. He is the lead editor of Radicalization in South Asia: Context, Trajectories and Implications, published by Sage in 2019.

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