By Tim Cushing
We can’t have nice things. We can’t even have mediocre things. And, in the midst of a global pandemic, we can’t even have basic things. The Bangladesh government hasn’t exactly discovered the power of censorship. The government and this power are already acquainted. But with a novel virus in the air, the government has discovered it can silence speech more effectively.
At least 20 journalists in Bangladesh have been charged or arrested under the controversial Digital Security Act (DSA) in the past month, raising concerns about free speech in the South Asian nation.
A number of journalists have been arrested for social media posts critical of the government or reporting on the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
This isn’t the only government handling the pandemic poorly. The response to the growing pandemic has ranged from bad to awful to well-we’re-done-reporting-stats around the world. But governments should welcome criticism. It keeps them honest. But world governments hate honesty. It shows they’re not prepared to handle nationwide outages. Unemployment rises. Markets fall. And governments… well, they censor.
At least one Bangladeshi journalist has already been “disappeared” by the government. Other journalists remain, but they’re overseen by a vindictive government that won’t take “this won’t do” for an answer. The government wants to hold those least responsible for the government’s failure responsible for the government’s failure. Cue the arrests and the attendant silencing.
Nearly 60 cases have been filed against more than 100 people, including 22 journalists, under the DSA this year until May 6, according to a study by Article 19, a UK-based human rights body.
Any charge will do. The disappeared journalist, Safiqul Islam Kajol, faces criminal defamation charges from the same government that whisked the reporter into nonexistence. Criminal defamation laws remain on the books solely for the purpose of allowing governments and their employees to harass and silence those who would speak out about their abuses.
In addition to the mysterious defamation charges, this same journalist faces “trespassing” charges for reappearing at the country’s border. Whatever it takes to pressure someone into a plea deal where they agree they’re guilty of being (1) existent and (2) critical of the government.
Make no mistake. The coronavirus is a crisis. And it’s an opportunity. Governments that think their constituents should be subjected to more surveillance are arguing this justifies that expansion of power. A worldwide patchwork of cybercrime/libel/fake news laws ensures this will happen, starting with prominent journalists and ending with internet nobodies who happen to question their government’s actions. The end result will be a wave of censorship — both self- and government-ordained.