ARTICLE 19 webinar: Public health information must not be withheld

Speakers called on the government to hold weekly press conferences with questions and answers on the Covid-19 situation

Information on public health emergencies during a pandemic must not be hidden from the public. In a crisis, genuine information helps make people aware and also helps them to prepare themselves.

Health experts and rights activists made the observations at an online webinar, ‘Covid-19: Pandemic, People, Government and Right to Information,’ organized by ARTICLE 19 on Saturday on the occasion of International Day for Universal Access to Information [September 28], said a press release.

This year, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) theme for this significant day is, “Saving Lives, Building Trust, Bringing Hope!”

Speakers at the webinar said the awareness and seriousness of people across the country regarding Covid-19 has now come down due to the declining flow of information from the government. 

Besides publishing daily bulletins, it is necessary to hold a press conference at least once a week with the opportunity to question and answer, they added.

The webinar was hosted by Faruq Faisel, regional director of ARTICLE 19 Bangladesh, and South Asia.

Faruq Faisel presented the data on the violation of the right to information, obstruction of the flow of information, and lack of transparency. 

He said from March to June 2020, ARTICLE 19 recorded 1,929 cases of violation of freedom of expression and right to information in the country.

The number of victims in these incidents is 2,613. During this time, 768 cases of violation of right to expression were recorded, he mentioned.

Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research Advisor Dr Mushtaq Hossain said: “While officials in the health department and other government offices cannot share all information such as personal information, they can still share information regarding the disease and related scientific matters. 

“People need to be empowered by the providing of risk related information, so they can take appropriate measures to protect themselves.”

Speaking as the moderator, Faruq Faisel said: “Due to the novel nature of the coronavirus, this experience is new to everyone. 

“There was a lack of awareness among journalists as well, at the beginning, regarding reporting on Covid-19. Many did not know how to report a pandemic while keeping themselves safe. 

“It is necessary to increase the capacity of journalists in these matters. People should also take the initiative to raise awareness and learn without being dependent on the government.”

Commenting on the flow of information and the right to information, Dr AKM Shamsuzzaman, director of the National Institute of Laboratory Medicine and Referral Centre, said: “The government has the obligation to disclose and provide the people with urgent information about Covid-19.”

Bangladesher Samajtantrik Dal (BSD), Barisal District Committee Member Secretary, Dr Manisha Chakraborty, said: “The government’s strategy to deal with the pandemic has undoubtedly shown a tendency to hide information from the very beginning of the crisis.

“During this period, the expression of information and independent opinion has been snatched from the people. Due to the lack of free flow of information, there have been several inhumane fraud and corruption cases related to Covid-19.”

Thengamara Mohila Sabuj Sangha’s health department chief, Dr Md Matiur Rahman, called for a far-reaching plan based on lessons from the recent past, to deal with Covid-19.

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