Almost three years ago, Bangladesh, like most countries, experienced a nightmare when the coronavirus infection turned into a pandemic. The deaths and infection rates were galloping at an unprecedented pace. Given the looming fear of death and miseries of infected patients, a significant number of people fell pray to conspiracy theories about COVID-19. It was a huge challenge for the healthcare sector to counter the rumour-mongers.
Social media, newspapers and television networks were agog with unscientific claims that were being dished out. Media organisations failed in responsible journalism; they failed to comprehend the alarming impacts of their ‘news’ on society. It’s true that newsroom gatekeepers had a tough job by way of differentiating between truth and false information on COVID-19, particularly during the initial months. This resulted in growing frustration among news consumers, with many of them losing their confidence in mainstream media.
At the same time, fake news, disinformation, misinformation, mal-information and rumours were produced on conveyor belts by enthusiasts and deliberately posted on social media quoting reliable sources. Surprisingly, most people believed and shared millions of posts with near and dear ones without cross-checking or doing a simple exercise of fact-checking on the web browser.
At one stage, the Bangladesh authorities began to crack down on rumour-mongers. The authorities made the best use of the draconian law known as the Digital Security Act (DSA) of 2018, which allows for searches and arrests without warrant, with prison sentences that could go up to 14 years, plus a huge penalty for “spreading” propaganda.
The law was heavily criticised for deliberately targeting journalists, critics, opposition and netizens. The use of DSA has been so outlandish that even folk singers, minors, doctors, cartoonists, and academicians were among those arrested. Mysteriously, the law has not touched the Islamist leaders – one of the key groups responsible for spreading misinformation about COVID-19 in the country.
Amid fear of intimidation and legal harassment, news organisations have adopted self-censorship, which remains another challenge now. However, there are silver linings. The pandemic spurred the rise of fact-checking organisations in Bangladesh. Although a few organisations, such as Jachai, BD Factcheck and Fact Watch, were operating in the niche area even before the healthcare crisis, the movement has gained greater momentum in the last three years.
That said, fact-checking organisations continue to operate under threats and watchful eyes of the government. We need more organisations like First Check to support and strengthen the fight against health misinformation. I’m grateful to be a part of this remarkable journey.
Independent journalist and media rights defender with Reporters Without Borders, Bangladesh