Bangladesh police charge 11 for spreading virus 'rumours'

Dhaka (AFP) –


A Bangladeshi cartoonist was among 11 people charged Wednesday for "spreading rumours" on social media about the coronavirus outbreak in the country, where experts say official figures likely understate the scale of the health crisis.

Police have arrested at least 40 people in recent weeks under controversial digital security laws that activists say are being used to suppress criticism of the government's handling of the contagion.

The impoverished South Asian nation has reported 11,719 virus cases and 186 deaths so far, but experts say limited testing by authorities means the true figures could be much higher.

The 11 have been charged with "spreading rumours and misinformation on Facebook about the coronavirus situation," Dhaka Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner Shamim Ahmed told AFP.

They are also accused of "undermining the image" of the late Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the nation's founding leader.

Two of the 11 -- cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore and writer Mushtaq Ahmed -- were arrested Wednesday, police said.

Kishore was working on a "Life in the Time of Corona" cartoon series that included caricatures of ruling party leaders and allegations of health sector corruption.

Ahmed has been a vocal online critic about the alleged shortage of protective gear for doctors.

They were charged under the Digital Security Act passed in 2018 which critics say is a serious threat to freedom of expression in the nation of 168 million people.

"It is seen as an assault to freedom of expression, to the right to life and livelihood," human rights activist Rezaur Rahman Lenin told AFP after the latest charges.

"The government should instead nurture a free press... which can greatly help in curbing the pandemic."

Bangladesh reported 790 new infections on Wednesday -- its fourth-straight one-day record of fresh cases.

The government on Monday extended its nationwide lockdown to May 16, but has allowed factories and some shops to re-open to kick-start the economy.

"There are deaths. We are sorry for that. But the number of deaths is still low compared to other nations," Health Minister Zahid Maleque said Tuesday as he acknowledged that the re-openings could drive up infections.

Bangladesh has also lifted restrictions on people congregating in mosques for prayers from Thursday.

Places of worship are to provide hand sanitiser and devotees should wear face masks and use their own prayer mat, the religious affairs ministry said Wednesday.