Where political conditions were unsettled, toll on journalism is heavy
In its annual press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders or Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) has dropped Bangladesh to 150th out of 180 countries, unfortunately lowest among South Asian nations.
In Bangladesh, the space to exercise freedom of speech is shrinking day by day. Even though the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the authorities deliberately ignore it.
Despite several appeals from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United States, the European Union, and journalists within Bangladesh to repeal and revise the notorious Digital Security Act to comply with international human rights law, the government has continued to use the law to silence criticism. Journalists are under immense pressure to self-censor or risk arrest.
In an unprecedented show of solidarity, on October 15, 2018, editors of all the major dailies in Bangladesh formed a human chain in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka. They took to the streets demanding amendments to a new law, the Digital Security Act 2018, which was passed by the parliament on September 19, 2018.
The censorship in Bangladesh has reached a stifling high. Activist and acclaimed photographer Shahidul Alam spent over 100 days in jail for spreading “propaganda through social media” under Bangladesh’s draconian Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, after he criticized the government’s violent crackdown on student protesters. Other journalists attempting to report on the same protests were beaten with machetes and metal pipes by supporters of the ruling Awami League while police stood by. And dozens more have been arrested under the ICT Act and it’s even more repressive successor, the Digital Security Act, writes Brad Adams of New York based Human Rights Watch.
Self-censorship is growing in Bangladesh’s media as a result of the endemic violence against journalists and media houses, coupled with the widespread impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of these crimes, argues International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
Last month, the National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre blocked access to Al Jazeera after the news agency published a report citing allegations against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s security advisor.
In February, the government blocked nearly 20,000 websites in what was described as an “anti-pornography” sweep, but which included somewhereinblog.net, a popular blogging site that serves as a platform for 250,000 registered bloggers, Bangla Google Books, and popular social media apps, TikTok and Bigo.
Notwithstanding Bangladesh’s Information Minister Hasan Mahmud disputed RSF’s report findings, saying there is “no censorship on news.” But he failed to contest the rampant “self-censorship” in private televisions, daily newspapers and news portals.
London based another media rights organization, Article 19 in its annual report stated that the trend of journalist violence has changed in Bangladesh in the past few years. For instance there were 31 defamation cases, 71 cases brought under section 57 of ICT Act (Digital Security Act) 2018, and 9 illegal arrest warrant and 20 more different types of legal harassment occurred in the year.
Two journalists were murdered in 2018.
Suborna Nodi, 32, the Pabna correspondent for Ananda TV and a journalist for the Daily Jagroto Bangla newspaper, was hacked to death at the door of her home on August 28.
Shahjahan Bachchu, acting editor of weekly Amader Bikrampur, become the victim of a horrific killing in Munshiganj district on June 11.
Freedom of the press remains imperiled as violence against journalists continues to spike in the country, according to a report of local rights group Ain O Shalish Kendro (ASK), released on January 10, 2019.
“As many as 207 journalists have been harassed from January 1 to December 31, a steep climb from 122 in 2017 and 117 in 2016,” the organization reported.
At least 61 journalists were assaulted by members of the ruling party or its wing organizations and 42 journalists were victims of bomb attacks.
Another 18 journalists were harassed by law enforcement agencies, with 11 others receiving threats from purported ruling party members, government officials, and anonymous callers.
Moreover, publication of 15 news reports led to lawsuits being filed. Nine journalists were assaulted by government officials. Three journalists were killed and at least one went missing.
The International Federation of Journalists - IFJ 2019 Report argued that the situation in Bangladesh is as bad. Journalists and other activists are threatened with arrests and detentions for the comments they make online.
Internet shutdowns are becoming increasingly common in South Asia – especially in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. The economic cost for total internet shutdown for Bangladesh it is USD 63 million, for 24 hours for Pakistan is equivalent to USD 65 million and a whopping USD 1 billion for India.
Saleem Samad, is an Ashoka Fellow (USA), recipient of Hellman-Hammett Award and also Bangladesh correspondent of Paris based international media rights organization, Reporters Without Borders (RSF)
Twitter @saleemsamad; email