ooking at the broad strokes, one would think this was one of several countries today: take one authoritarian government, a subdued opposition, restless citizen populations, hostility towards a free press, economic uncertainty, and mix it all up with a global pandemic. South Asia is no exception, although there are some local aspects that merit a closer look.
South Asia accounts for almost a quarter of the world’s population, home to nearly 2 billion people, according to July 2020 data from Worldmeters. India pulls far ahead of all South Asian countries, with a population of over 1.3 billion people; Pakistan houses some 220 million people, and is a distant second place.
The coronavirus pandemic has ripped through the region and has left countries reeling: a bleeding economy, overwhelmed healthcare systems, and millions of people displaced, sick, and jobless. The virus has also exposed tyrants for who they really are. Authoritarian regimes in the region have used the crisis as a cover to stamp out dissent and concentrate powers onto themselves.
On the surface, Sri Lanka has a fairly good handle on the Covid-19 pandemic. The country has around 2,000 cases, around 1,500 of whom have more or less recovered, and a total of 11 deaths. The public opinion is largely behind the government and the president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, and all that remains are some concerns over restarting the economy once the pandemic fades.
But of course, there are more issues that lie beneath the surface that predate the virus, issues that are now seen in the new light of this global health crisis. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, shared his views regarding the situation in Sri Lanka.
Delayed elections and parallel administrations
The pandemic spread right at the heels of a national election in November 2019, where Rajapaksa won by around 1.5 million votes. He then dissolved parliament as it completed four and a half years of its five-year term on March 2, 2020. A snap election was scheduled to follow by April 25th, but the Sri Lankan Election Commission was forced to postpone it twice: first until June, and again until August.
A voter shows her inked finger after casting her ballot in the parliamentary election outside a polling station in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Aug. 5.
This election’s importance lies in the composition of the next parliament, if Rajapaksa will get the two-thirds majority he needs to further consolidate his power, or if the now-flagging opposition will have a fighting chance against the ones in power. And Rajapaksa’s authoritarian style of governance has so far proven popular among the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority.
As things turned out, the Sri Lanka People’s Front registered a landslide victory and won 145 seats in the parliamentary elections held Aug. 5. Combined with its current allies, Rajapaksa now enjoys the support of a “super-majority” in the parliament, with 150 of its members on his favor.
Rajapaksa’s style so far has been to pressure the Sri Lankan bureaucracy into making changes in their operations without proper, systematic consultation, and all this is seen as him being a man of action. Moreover, Saravanamuttu relates that Rajapaksa has created various task forces led by currently serving or former military officials, in effect running a sort of parallel administration composed of people the president trusts.
Saravanamuttu says, “One task force is supposed to create a disciplined, virtuous, and law-abiding society, whatever that is,” and so far, the Rajapaksa administration seems to equate discipline with silence. Under such circumstances, human rights defenders and journalists are some of the first to take the hit, after minorities and the marginalized.
Minorities under fire
Muslims are especially affected by the pandemic and the government’s response. Muslim communities in Sri Lanka were already facing heavy suspicion after the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019. With the coming of Covid-19, the government has seen fit to disrespect Muslim burial practices. Four of the 11 Covid-19 deaths were Muslim, all of whom were cremated, against tradition. It also seems the regulation to cremate all Covid deaths was rushed after the first Muslim death.
Free expression in Sri Lanka, while still enjoyed by some, is precarious these days, with the government criminalizing misinformation on social media without being clear on what misinformation entails, thus opening the possibility of arrest to anyone critical of the government.
This has roots in history. “During the war years, Sri Lanka earned notoriety for arbitrary arrests, abductions, murders, enforced disappearances of journalists and restrictions, and censorship, arson and threats to media institutions,” wrote Shalomi Daniel and Ermiza Tegal for Groundviews.
Added to this is Sri Lanka’s militarized response to the pandemic; with a dissolved parliament, there are few checks and balances to the executive’s power. Even the courts, says Saravanamuttu, have been somewhat sensitive to the needs of the executive, although government critics have some leeway there. Another chilling effect of this militarized approach is the involvement of the State Intelligence Service in contact tracing; the stigma attached to having Covid-19 might have been softened had the government engaged public health workers instead.
Groundviews, a Sri Lankan news website, also used to run a number of WhatsApp groups for publishing updates. These groups seemed to have their subscribers’ numbers harvested, which the administrators considered “a harbinger of risks pegged to malevolent intrusion and surveillance in Sri Lanka that will increase in sophistication, speed and scale at pace,” leading to them shutting their groups down.
All this under an authoritarian government that enjoys the majority’s support has led to civil society organizations to self-censor, according to Saravanamuttu. While it is an ongoing practice to point out government abuses and lapses in services at the moment, it seems like any opposition or administration critic can gain teeth after the August 5th elections. Until then, Sri Lanka is on standby, as if waiting for something to give.
Narendra Modi has not given a press conference in six years. The Indian Prime Minister prefers to make announcements but not to take questions from journalists. This sets the tone for how his government deals with the media.
On March 31, 2020, the Indian government requested that the Supreme Court instruct the media to refrain from publishing anything about the pandemic “without first ascertaining the facts from the mechanism provided by the government.” While the Indian Supreme Court thankfully did not yield to this request, the action itself shows how the government views the media as a propaganda arm. Just six days before this, Reporters Without Borders reported that Prime Minister Narendra Modi “had personally asked the owners and editors of the 20 biggest mainstream print media outlets to publish ‘positive stories’ about the crisis and to ‘act as a link between government and people.’”
The government’s view of the media has its roots from around 30 years ago. In 2016, Sharif Rangnekar wrote that the Indian media space expanded in the 1990s, turning it into a business that competes on price, to the point that primetime news comes with a barrage of advertisements. This also affected the way the news was delivered—with an eye for what stories will sell, in exchange for a decline in the quality of journalism.
People buy essential commodities in a market at Worli village during a nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the spread of Covid-19.
So in 2020, when the media reported on the plight of migrant laborers traveling hundreds of miles to flee the pandemic and bad economic conditions to return to their villages, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta called them vultures for focusing on the negative aspects of news, instead of balancing it out with positive stories. This move was met with massive criticism, as dissatisfaction with the Modi-led government has been at an all-time high and has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Then within ten days of making this request of the supreme court, the Indian health ministry blamed Muslim missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat for spreading the virus among its members who then spread it to various countries in South and Southeast Asia. As of early April 2020, nearly a third of India’s Covid-positive cases can be traced back to this congregation.
There is some negligence on the Muslim movement’s part, though the Indian government is not completely without blame. On the same day Tablighi Jamaat began their event, the health ministry did not consider Covid-19 a health emergency despite WHO declaring the pandemic on March 11. Other large public gatherings were allowed to continue even after India reported its first case. Moreover, the case against Tablighi Jamaat seems fueled by Islamophobic views, which the Modi government has encouraged.
But the press freedom situation seems to go beyond the pandemic. In 2020, India slipped down two places on the World Press Freedom Index to No. 142 of 180 countries. While 2019 saw no journalists killed (as opposed to six in 2018), the press continues to be harassed on several fronts.
One of the latest moves from the government has been in Jammu and Kashmir, where a media policy was proposed that will place a newspaper sub-editor and a government official in the review process for news stories. All this leads to a government-controlled press. Many media outlets have expressed their disapproval and resistance to this proposal, but it has nonetheless had a chilling effect among journalists in these regions.
The Indian government also has another weapon in its arsenal against press freedom: advertising revenue. They use a carrot-and-stick approach; newspapers that align with government narratives gain revenue from government advertisements, while the same ads are pulled from newspapers critical of the administration. Government ads have already been pulled from The Times of India, The Hindu, and The Telegraph, India’s highest-circulation English-language newspapers, all after running articles that displeased the government.
Running government ads also surrenders the platform to the government, as they take up the front pages, delivering the narrative that makes the administration look good and burying the real stories inside. This goes back to the Indian media 30 years ago, when it started to serve as a platform for advertising and thus may have become overly reliant on it as a revenue source, endangering press freedom along the way.
Long before Covid-19 began to spread globally, free expression in Bangladesh was already kept under heavy guard. Typical of authoritarian governments, the Awami League government under Sheikh Hasina is sensitive to criticism and has stifled it with a surprising degree of ingenuity.
For example, in March 2020, the journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol went missing, only to be found 53 days later at a town bordering India. He disappeared a day after he wrote to criticize an alleged sex-trafficking ring run by an Awami League official. This official filed a defamation suit against Kajol, and the following day, he disappeared. The moment he surfaced, Kajol was once again charged and thrown in jail, facing seven years in prison under the country’s digital security act.
Beyond actions against individual journalists, the Awami League has other ways to keep the media in check. David Bergman of Netra News – currently operating from outside Bangladesh — offered several insights into the issues surrounding free expression in the country.
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In this interview, David Bergman, English editor of Netra News, talks about the media situation in Bangladesh and how the government’s actions have affected the media companies’ operations and reporting.
Cautionary measures and the alternatives
Bergman says that the 20 or 30 TV stations in Bangladesh are privately owned. Some owners are pro-Awami League businessmen, while others run a media outlet to give their other businesses some leverage, and finally a few who are truly independent-minded media companies. All these companies are given a government license to operate, which can be removed.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a press conference at Dhaka, Bangladesh on July 17, 2016.
To stay on the safe side, television and print companies engage in self-censorship: first at the level of the journalist, and then again the editor’s. Self-censorship involves not naming names, stating issues generally while containing critical elements, or removing some identifying details to avoid being charged with defamation.
This state of affairs was in place before Covid-19 spread into the country, and when the virus spread in Bangladesh, it affected the government’s response. Early in the lockdown, garment workers based in Dhaka were allowed to go home to their villages in districts outside the capital. This ill-advised decision was criticized by a UN report, which projected around half a million to two million could die from the virus. Netra News published the report, leading the government to block both the main site and the mirror site for the article.
The Awami League has also detained voices critical of their governance, charging them under “the overbroad and widely misused Digital Security Act.” Those detained are Ahmed Kabir Kishore, a cartoonist; Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer and activist; Didarul Bhuiyan, an activist; and Minhaz Mannan Emon, director of the Dhaka Stock Exchange. The government has also charged others outside of Bangladesh: Tasneem Khalil and Shahed Alam, journalists; Asif Mohiuddin, a blogger; and Saer Zulkarnain, Ashiq Imran, Philipp Schumacher, and Swapan Wahed.
Four of the people were arrested for their involvement in the highly critical I am Bangladeshi Facebook page, and for reasons that are difficult to justify under the country’s Digital Security Act.
The arrests sometimes border on the absurd, as with the arrest of a 15-year-old boy whose Facebook post merely mentioned that Sheikh Hasina is a widow.
Bergman explains: “It’s the nature of authoritarian regimes: there’s a level of fragility to them. This government has come to power on the basis of elections that are highly contested in terms of their integrity. Although they are in full control of the country, there is still nonetheless a fragility to their legitimacy that they’re kind of aware of.”
As for any political opposition, the Awami League has, in Bergman’s words, decimated them through arrests and criminal cases and seem not much of a threat to the administration. The more vocal critics are not from the opposition—they may support it, but they are not formally members.
However, the situation in Bangladesh seems to hold in favor of the government and its repressive tactics, with the media and concerned citizens waiting for the situation to shift somehow.
Free expression in South Asia
For both Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, there is a sense that any independent media outlets are besieged by their watchful governments and that they’re waiting for the tides to turn somehow. India seems to be faring marginally better, with its mostly free press, though not without any oppression to their journalists and aspersions cast on their credibility.
In these three countries, their free press faces the same challenge: to seek out and publish the truth, this time with the added urgency of keeping as many people safe from the virus while under the grip of autocratic, authoritarian regimes. It just so happens that the process of unpacking the truth reveals the lapses in government services, if not acts of impunity and intolerance.
If anything, the pandemic has exacerbated the existing power structures of these governments, adding the elements of a public health emergency and burgeoning economic crises resulting from the lockdowns. Government lapses and biases now cannot help but display themselves under pressure, and a watchful free press can force them into proper service—for as long as the press remains free. ●
Paul Catiang is a freelance writer, editor, and researcher based in Metro Manila. His work ranges from social and political reform and environmental defense to food and travel writing and science communication. Paul is also a certified yoga and meditation teacher.