Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the authoritarian use of digital technologies in the Asia-Pacific. In South Asia, governments saw the health crisis as an opportunity to weaponise new and existing laws to conduct mass surveillance and crack down on dissent, under the guise of ensuring public health and safety.
In this episode of Pretty Good Podcast, two South Asian contributors of EngageMedia’s Pandemic of Control series elaborate on how the digital technologies used for pandemic management have infringed on human and digital rights. Harindrini Corea, legal consultant of Hashtag Generation, shares more about the criminalisation of people’s movements and peaceful protests amid the economic decline in Sri Lanka. Filmmaker and human rights advocate Zayed Siddiki discusses how the state used the legal system to suppress citizens’ rights in online and offline spaces.
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- Pandemic of Control is a series of articles that aims to further public discourse on the rise of digital authoritarianism in the Asia-Pacific amid COVID-19. The 10 pieces from Indonesia, Vietnam, India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Australia seek to question their countries’ pandemic response, and shed light on more rights-respecting paths. Read more about this series by EngageMedia in partnership with CommonEdge.
- Harindrini Corea is an attorney-at-law, and the legal consultant of Hashtag Generation, a movement led and run by a group of young, tech-savvy, socially-conscious Sri Lankans advocating for the meaningful civic and political participation of youth, especially women and people from minority groups.
- Writing for EngageMedia about Sri Lanka’s COVID-19 response, Harindrini discussed how state-sponsored disinformation disproportionately targeted Muslim communities. She also highlighted the use of surveillance and weaponisation of laws to suppress critical voices. Read her article here.
- Since the article’s publishing, Sri Lanka’s former president, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was forced to flee the country and resign his post in July 2022. This came after mass protests and a people’s movement called “Go Home Gota” that demanded Rajapaksa’s resignation as the country endured its worst economic crisis since independence. Critics have accused the ousted president of “criminal financial mismanagement” that severely crippled Sri Lanka’s economy.
- Harindrini wrote and narrated the video essay Gota Go Home, which is about the peaceful protest against Rajapaksa.
- Under Sri Lanka’s new president Ranil Wickremesinghe, there has been a crackdown on protesters, particularly those who had been part of the protests against Rajapaksa. The new president is a known ally of Rajapaksa.
- Zayed Siddiki is an independent filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer whose films address social and political issues in Bangladesh.
- His Pandemic of Control article highlighted the government’s surgical use of a draconian law to pick out and punish journalists, academics, ordinary citizens, and even government officials and doctors criticising the pandemic response. Read his article here.
- Bangladesh has been in a long-standing struggle to sustain its fragile democracy since independence in 1971. Over the past decade and a half, the country experienced one-party rule and a worsening state of civic spaces. The government has used state mechanisms and legal instruments, such as the Digital Security Act, to substantially shrink civic spaces offline and online.
- Bangladesh’s ruling party has dominated the last two general elections in 2014 and 2018, crushing political opponents and critics through harassment, arbitrary arrests, torture, and enforced disappearances, according to Zayed.
- Zayed wrote and directed the documentary Shrinking Civic Space in Bangladesh, which tackles the crackdown on dissent in both online and offline spaces in the country.
- Zayed has also contributed to a number of reports on the suppression of freedom of speech in Bangladesh:
- Shrinking Civic Space in Bangladesh during COVID-19 (ICNL 2021 report)
- An assessment of Responsible Use of Internet and Freedom of Expression(UNDP VOICE 2020)
- Monitoring the scenario of media freedom in Bangladesh (UNDP VOICE 2020)
- Freedom of expression-monitoring and documentation of cases (UNDP VOICE 2020)
- This episode delved deeper into the similarities and differences in the pandemic response of the Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi governments. In both countries, authorities used mass surveillance and legal systems to censor those criticising pandemic mismanagement.
- EngageMedia also asked Harindrini and Zayed about new authoritarian tactics that civil society in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh should watch out for.
- Zayed highlighted the government’s use of surveillance technology. In 2018, the Bangladesh government bought Israeli-made surveillance equipment. Private chats of activists and journalists on messaging apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are being tracked, with the Digital Security Act largely used as a tool against political opponents and journalists.
- Harindrini said that during the protests against Rajapaksa, drone and stingray technology were used for mass surveillance. The government also moved to block social media, but reversed the directive after users turned to virtual private networks to circumvent the ban. Harindrini said that increasing people’s knowledge on digital rights is crucial to countering authoritarian attempts to control digital spaces.