We are deeply concerned by the continued assault on freedom of expression and free flow of information in the country. In its latest bid to tighten control of information, the administration has imposed restrictions on any kind of media engagement by government officials without prior approval of their department chiefs. According to a report by this daily, the public administration ministry has sent a letter to the secretaries in all ministries to this effect, invoking Section 22 of the Government Servant (Conduct) Rules, 1979. The blanket restriction comes after months of similar measures, if on a smaller scale, by several government and autonomous bodies. For example, on April 16, nurses of all public hospitals were instructed by the Directorate General of Nursing and Midwifery not to speak to the media. A week later, Health Minister Zahid Maleque prohibited health officials from talking to the media.
It’s important to take note of the manner in which increasing restrictions are being imposed on the free flow of information. The coronavirus pandemic has, unfortunately, seen old rules being invoked and familiar repressive tools such as the Digital Security Act being used with greater enthusiasm than before, with devastating consequences. Making state officials inaccessible for comments or interviews during a pandemic could mean that you not only get inaccurate, unverified information, but also end up with dangerous claims such as the ones by ministers that the pandemic is “under control” in Bangladesh, which is far from the truth. There is usually a vested interest in centralising communications like this. It enables politicians and policymakers to selectively “spin” data to control public opinion. This form of information control, at a time of dwindling access and resources for journalists in Bangladesh, could also mean a heavy blow to the news industry.
We urge the government to refrain from pursuing this dangerous path. While controlling public messaging through some form of centralised communications may have some utility in normal times, there is no justification for blanket restrictions on media engagement. The implications of such gag policies in the middle of a pandemic can be far-reaching and, therefore, these should be taken off the books. At the same time, we also urge the government to ensure proper flow of information, which is vital to saving lives and establishing accountability, and address people’s legitimate grievances instead of stifling them. The responsibility for any chaos that follows from lack of opportunity to speak and lack of access to proper information ultimately lies with the government.