The spread of the coronavirus in Bangladesh hits the press especially hard, with more than a hundred journalists infected in Dhaka alone, amid a serious crisis in the sector and the intense persecution of the authorities through a controversial information control law .
Journalist Rahim Shuvo fears that he will be arrested at any moment.
On April 9, this correspondent for the news portal Bdnews24.com reported that 68 bags of rice, which were to be sold at reduced prices to the poorest in the midst of the pandemic, had been stolen by a member of the Awami League, the party of the government.
Shortly after, he was singled out under the rigorous Digital Security Law along with his editor and two other journalists, who had published similar information in their respective media.
“I am practically on the run. I cannot even appeal to a bond because the court is closed here,” Shuvo told Efe.
The four are among the 41 accused under this rule between April 1 and May 6 in the country, according to Human Rights Forum Bangladesh, a platform of 20 human rights organizations.
The defendants include 20 journalists, a blogger, a cartoonist and 19 other people related to the press. Some of them are already in jail.
Cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore and writer Mushtaq Ahmed were arrested on May 6 for allegedly spreading rumors on social media about the pandemic, and two others were implicated in the same case soon after.
According to Amnesty International (AI), more than 1,000 cases have been filed under this law since it was implemented in October 2018, but the organization reported an increase in the application of the standard that coincides with the fight against the coronavirus.
“Certainly, managing a pandemic is a challenge for all states. But what is really not useful is trying to silence criticism,” the director for South Asia of Human Rights Watch (HRW) told Efe. ), Meenakshi Ganguly.
But the problem of Bangladeshi journalists during the pandemic is not limited to facing legal charges that hinder freedom of expression, but, like other professionals on the street, also fear the attack of the virus.
According to Our Media, Our Rights, a group of volunteers related to the press that works through social networks, until May 14, at least 113 journalists and other media workers tested positive for coronavirus and one of them died. .
Two more journalists have died with symptoms of COVID-19, but their diagnosis was never confirmed.
The Dhaka metropolis registered the majority of cases, 102, in a country that has so far had more than 28,500 confirmed infections and 400 deaths from coronavirus.
In late March, reporter Shahdat Hossain was forced to start a quarantine after covering the release of former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, which coincided with the beginning of the outbreak in the country.
Thousands of supporters ignored a government directive to avoid mass gatherings due to the pandemic, gathering on March 25 to welcome the former ruler after a long period in prison.
Two weeks later, Shahadat underwent a test for the disease that tested positive. Soon, his wife, four-month-old daughter, in-laws, and a domestic worker also confirmed that they were infected.
The Shahadat case was one of the first among the community of journalists in Bangladesh, which soon spread among dozens of reporters who have been working on the front line to cover the development of the pandemic.
The coordinator of Our Media, Our Rights, Ahammad Foyez, attributed to the negligence of the owners of the media the increase in coronavirus cases among journalists in the country.
“As we see, the owners and media managers, in most cases, took the matter lightly in the initial stage of virus detection,” he said.
In the opinion of the president of a faction of the Federal Union of Journalists of Bangladesh (BFUJ), Molla Jalal, the owners must take responsibility for so many journalists who are victims of the virus.
“We have a clear opinion. Journalists work in private companies. It is the owners’ obligation to guarantee their safety,” he claimed, while suggesting that if measures are not implemented, “the government should take legal action against them.”
THE ECONOMIC IMPACT
The Bangladeshi Executive, added the unionist, should also take sides in the defense of the press, suffocated during the pandemic by the fall to the historic low of advertising revenue and the sale of copies.
Several Bangladeshi newspapers have stopped publishing, and many others are struggling to continue paying wages to their workers.
“None of us was prepared for the coronavirus, so we demand a financial allocation, not just a stimulus package, we need the government to guarantee the livelihood of journalists,” he said.