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Bangladesh doubled down on an authoritarian crackdown on free speech, arresting critics, and censoring media.

The Awami League-led government used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to carry out its agenda, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.

The US-based global rights body made the observations in its World Report 2020, released on Wednesday.

The report said, arrests under the abusive Digital Security Act (DSA) increased dramatically. Impunity for abuses by security forces, including enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, remained pervasive.

Regarding the report, law minister Anisul Huq told Prothom Alo over phone on Wednesday night that he couldn’t comment before reading the report.

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The report observed Bangladesh authorities also used the COVID-19 pandemic as pretext to censor free speech and the media and threaten academic freedom, arresting artists, students, physicians, political opposition members, and activists for speaking out about the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The government silenced healthcare workers and cracked down on those who spoke out over a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and resources for treating COVID-19. In May, the government issued a circular banning all government employees from posting, “liking,” sharing, or commenting on any content which might “tarnish the image of the state” or the government’s “important persons,” it read.

The report said the government censored the media by blocking news sites and dropping the media from the list of emergency services that remained exempt from lockdown restrictions.

In August, the cabinet approved a draft amendment to the 2017 National Online Media Policy, requiring all media outlets to obtain government approval to run their online media portals.

The report also expressed concerns over relocation of Rohingyas to Bhashan Char, use of Distal Security Act and extrajudicial killings by security forces.

Regarding the report, former chairman of National Human Rights Commission, Mizanur Rahman told Prothom Alo, “The report has nothing new. We always express these criticisms and concerns"

“The freedom of expression is being shrunk," Mizanur Rahman added.

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