On March 27, 2020, the Ministry of Secondary and Higher Education announced the suspension of two academics for their social media posts about a pandemic of a novel coronavirus known as COVID-19.
First detected in Wuhan, China in December 2019, COVID-19 has rapidly spread to a growing number of countries around the world. According to researchers at Johns Hopkins University, as of April 13, 2020, there were 1,904,566 confirmed cases around the world, including 803 in Bangladesh.
On March 21, Kazi Zakia Ferdousi, an assistant professor of English at Gafargaon Government College, and Shahadat Ullah Kayser, a philosophy professor at Barisal Government Women’s College, reportedly published Facebook posts critical of the government’s handling of COVID-19 and a reported lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for doctors and other healthcare workers.
Zakia told The Daily Star that she wanted to bring attention to the lack of PPE available to healthcare workers who, she says, should be given priority because of their role in directly combatting the virus. Zakia told the newspaper that she deleted the post two hours later because of negative comments she had received from colleagues in response to the post.
Kayser’s post, which also reportedly urged prioritization of PPE for healthcare workers, has also since been deleted.
On March 27, the Ministry of Secondary and Higher Education issued two separate orders against Zakia and Kayser, suspending them for their “unwarranted and inciting” Facebook posts. The orders ask the academics to explain by April 14, 2020, why the ministry should refrain from disciplinary actions against them.
Recent reports by local press and a March 31 report by Human Rights Watch indicate that the Bangladeshi government has closely monitored online expression regarding COVID-19 and carried out arrests and other legal actions targeting internet users accused of spreading rumors and false information.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension of scholars in apparent retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the right to freedom of expression—conduct that is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bangladesh is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from restricting or retaliating against nonviolent academic or expressive activity. Suspensions or other disciplinary measures intended to punish such activity undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.