Bangladesh, like other parts of the world, has seen a decline in freedom of expression, with many of the record numbers of attacks on journalists and cases of legal harassment perpetrated by the state and political actors, a British human rights organisation report says.
The Global Expression Report 2018-19 says Bangladesh scored significantly below the regional average in digital, protection and transparency.
The report by Article 19 analysed data from 161 countries under 39 indicators and applied them across five pillars of freedom of expression – transparency, civic space, protection, digital and media.
Bangladesh, the report said, saw a corresponding rise in censorship and violence during the 2018 election year. For instance, over 50 websites were blocked, mobile operators were ordered to slow their speeds, and 30 masked individuals attacked 12 journalists on December 24.
There were also reports of mass arrests of opposition politicians, and 3,00,000 politically motivated criminal cases were filed against party members and supporters.
The ruling Awami League dominated the election, though the opposition rejected the result and called for a new vote, the report said.
Writer and publisher Shahjahan Bachchu was shot dead in June 2018. He was known for his religious non-conformism, running publishing house Bishakha Prokashoni, and editing the online weekly Amader Bikrampur.
Mahmudur Rahman, former editor of an opposition-aligned daily, was attacked and injured as he left a defamation hearing, and needed to seek medical attention in a hospital. It is suspected that he was attacked by Chhatra League, said the report.
Digital Security Act
The Digital Security Act was passed, dashing hopes of an opening for online expression after the hard-won repeal of the notorious Section 57.
The new law provides for life sentences for using digital devices to spread negative propaganda against the Liberation War or the Father of the Nation; up to five years' imprisonment for deliberately publishing defamatory or false or distorted content; and up to 10 years' imprisonment for hurting religious sentiments, hate speech, or causing deterioration of law and order.
There was public outrage at the new provisions – particularly the provision of the new law, which classed gathering information from inside government offices as espionage, carrying a 14-year jail sentence. Many took to Twitter to defend investigative journalism, declaring #IAmaSpy.
Broadcast media was also restricted in October, when the National Broadcast Act was passed, providing sentences of up to three years in prison for going against the spirit of the 1971 Liberation War, or airing misleading or false information.
Road safety protests
August also saw major protests, centred around road safety, in Bangladesh. Police and armed men injured more than 40 media workers. No cases were lodged in connection with this violence despite pressure from ministers and substantial video and photo evidence. Not a single perpetrator was even officially identified.
A photojournalist was subjected to 100 days of arbitrary detention. Shahidul Alam was arrested for posting video footage of protests on Facebook, the prime minister herself accused Alam of spreading false news and being mentally sick.
But it was not only journalists who were penalised for coverage of the protests. On August 4, police arrested Nusrat Jahan Sonia – a 25-year-old primary school teacher who was seven months pregnant – in a rural area south of Dhaka. She was held for over two weeks for spreading rumours.
However, a member of her family said Sonia had merely shared a Facebook post relating to the protest. She was suspended from her job at a government school until her case was cleared, which may take years.
Impunity for crimes against journalists
Impunity for crimes against journalists is a too-familiar story in Bangladesh, where the huge majority of crimes go unpunished, the report said.
The 2012 murders of journalists Sagar Sarwar (news editor at the Maasranga TV channel) and Meherun Runi (senior reporter at ATN Bangla) are emblematic of its lack of progress.
The delivery of the investigation report on these murders has been delayed 66 times.
Global freedom of expression at 10-year low
The report says global freedom of expression is at its lowest for a decade. Gains that were made between 2008 – 2013 have been eroded over the last five years.
Repressive responses to street protests are contributing to the decline in freedom of expression around the world.
A rise in digital authoritarianism sees governments taking control of internet infrastructure, increasing online surveillance and controlling content.
The numbers of journalists, communicators and human rights defenders being imprisoned, attacked and killed continues to increase.
Also, 66 countries – with a combined population of more than 5.5 billion people – saw a decline in their overall freedom of expression environment last decade.