Alarming surge of press freedom violations in Bangladesh
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) sounds the alarm about a surge in press freedom violations in Bangladesh in recent weeks and calls on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government to give clear commitments to protect journalists.
Bangladeshi journalists have been subjected to many forms of pressure in the past few weeks, including judicial harassment, police violence, online harassment, attacks while out reporting and intimidation of their families. But government initiatives to protect journalists are rare. Increased censorship and an even more hostile environment for independent journalism is feared in the run-up to parliamentary elections next January.
New draconian law
What is already clear is that nearly a month ago, on 7 August, Hasina’s cabinet approved a proposed Cyber Security Act (CSA) that is intended to replace the 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), which the government has often used to silence critical journalists.
The proposed CSA includes only cosmetic improvements but leaves room for arbitrary interpretation by the authorities that endangers the right to report the news. Furthermore, its initial version was drafted without consulting media professionals, who were given only two weeks to propose changes.
“Sheikh Hasina's government approved this draconian bill in a rush in order to take advantage of its majority in parliament, the Jatiya Sangsad, before the parliamentary elections scheduled for January 2024. We call for this bill to be abandoned and for the 2018 Digital Security Act to be repealed. We also urge the Bangladeshi authorities to quickly take firm measures to ensure that journalists are duly protected in what is a politically charged environment. Acts of violence against media professionals are becoming only too common. Such violence, including online violence, must no longer go unpunished.
The proposed CSA reduces the penalty for certain offences by journalists but the offences are still not precisely defined, which leaves the authorities a great deal of leeway to interpret it as they see fit.
The bill still awaits approval by parliament, which reconvened on 3 September for this legislature’s last session. If passed, the CSA will replace the DSA with immediate effect, which means that cases already opened since 2018 will automatically be judged under this dangerous new law.
The proposed Cyber Security Act’s irony is that it takes no interest in protecting journalists against the cyber-harassment to which they are subjected. Asad Noor, the founder and editor of the English and Bengali-language website Anweshan, is a prominent victim of online threats. Forced to live in hiding abroad since 2019 to escape persecution by both the state and Islamist groups, he attracted the ire of fundamentalist groups again in June, when he posted a video denouncing the Islamist preacher Enayetullah Abbasi’s arrival in Britain.
His video quickly elicited a flood of social media posts calling for him to be killed. When finally forced by the British authorities to leave Britain, Abbasi issued a fatwa on 9 August condemning Noor to death. The Bangladeshi government has distinguished itself by its silence on this matter.
To denounce the authorities' repeated complacency towards extremist religious organisations, RSF joined a coalition of press freedom and human rights groups in writing to the prime minister on 30 August about another case of online harassment, this one targeting Adhora Yasmean, a journalist with Bangladesh’s RTV channel. Yasmean was harassed after investigating alleged crimes by the religious organisation Rajarbagh Darbar Sharif. At the same time, she is also being investigated under the DSA, in an example of how the government has used this law to prevent journalists from working.
Journalists’ work is also threatened by the judiciary’s readiness to prevent them from investigating ruling party officials and other local power-holders. The latest example are the warrants issued in the southeastern city of Cox’s Bazar on 27 August for the arrests of Sharifuzzaman Pintu, the former editor of the Dainik Bangla daily newspaper, and one of his reporters, Arifuzzaman Tuhin.
The warrants were issued after they did not respond to a summons to appear before a magistrate's court in Cox's Bazar by 27 August on a defamation charge for reporting a journalist’s alleged involvement in drug trafficking in early January. The two journalists say they never received any summons to appear in court and insist they would have appeared if they had received one.
Harassment of exile journalists’ families
Even when they are forced into exile, the authorities persecute journalists by targeting their families. RSF already reported in September 2022 that, in order to pressure Shamsul Alam Liton, the editor of Weekly Surma, a London-based English and Bengali-language weekly that is particularly critical of the Hasina government, and one of his reporters, Abdur Rab Bhuttow, the authorities had arrested their brothers.
Intelligence agents are now threatening to abduct Liton’s two sisters and their families if he does not stop his reporting.
Frequent physical violence
The past month has also seen acts of physical violence attacks against journalists while they were out reporting. On 26 August, no fewer than seven journalists were roughed up in the southern city of Barisal while trying to cover a case of hazing at the medical faculty involving the Chhatra League, the student branch of the Awami League, Bangladesh’s ruling party since 2009.
The head of the local branch of privately-owned Channel 24, Kausar Hossain Rana, and cameraman Ruhul Amin were manhandled by the head of the faculty and two teachers. Faculty staff also attacked the head of Asian Television’s local branch, Firoze Mostafa, and his cameraman. Two Time Television journalists, reporter Shaqil Mahmud and cameraman Sumon Hasan, and BanglaNews24.com website reporter Mushfiq Sourav were also targeted.
The superintendent of a hospital in the southwestern city of Jashore insulted and expelled three journalists – state-owned Bangladesh Television reporter Wahabuzzaman Jhantu, Ekattor TV reporter SM Farhad and cameraman Shaharul Islam Fardin – when they went to his office on 27 August to enquire about the spread of dengue in the region.