Independent Bangladesh has witnessed both military rule and the establishment of democratic institutions; throughout, the press have continued to suffer at the hands of not only various censorship laws, but also a number of sedition and criminal libel laws. With increasing use of social media in the recent decade, one of the most draconian laws, the Digital Security Act 2018, allows for conducting searches and arresting individuals without a warrant, and criminalizes various forms of speech.
Bangladesh now ranks 151st among 180 countries, with the lowest score for press freedom among all South Asian countries, according to Reporters without Borders (RSF). In the two years since the Digital Security Act was passed, Bangladesh has dropped five places.
In the article, we reflect on how freedom of speech in Bangladesh has evolved since the country’s birth.
Liberation and the Ensuing Chaos
After Bangladesh’s brutal fight for independence from Pakistan in 1971, the country witnessed a period of intense upheaval as it rose from the ashes of war. The country’s constitution, designed in 1972, upheld secular ideals. However, with the assassination of the country’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, in 1975, secularism slowly started eroding. A significant development can be noted in the fact that the phrase “Bismillahir Rahmanir Rahim” (In the name of God, most Gracious, most Compassionate) was introduced into the constitution during Ziaur Rahman’s era, indicating Islam’s superiority over other religions.
Also while Rahman was in power, the country saw strict rules imposed on the press. Naeem Mohaiemen, a political analyst, writes that it became an offense in that period to criticize the martial law in any way. “Press reports about attacks on journalists were focused on non-state actors,” he writes further.
In 1982, General Hussain Muhammad Ershad rose to power through a bloodless coup. His regime had a troubled relationship with the press, as observed by Mohaiemen and many others who lived through that period.
“His era was marked by a continuous cat and mouse game between the press and the regime, with newspapers and magazines getting censured for reports, and then immediately committing the same offense. The period was also marked by the use of coded signals in the press (e.g., romance stories that were actually about a corruption scandal) as well as a thriving parallel press of underground leaflets and pamphlets,” writes Mohaiemen.
One journalistic platform, Ittehad, was banned shortly after publishing the first criticism about the regime.
The decade following Ershad’s rise saw the frequent usage of issuing “Press Advice” to outlets, guiding them about what not to print. It was during his regime that Islam was formally introduced as the state religion of Bangladesh, setting a stage for extremism to exercise its influence (notably, through charges of blasphemy) in the coming years. Veteran journalist Syed Badrul Ahsan writes, “General Hussein Muhammad Ershad did lasting damage to the Bangladesh idea through imposing the concept of a state religion.”
As the regime’s grip on dissent was slowly weakening, martial law was re-imposed in 1985 following political protests. The government became careful about international publications. In 1986, a London-based Bengali weekly, Janomat, was banned, among other publications like The Hindu from India. We see from Mohaiemen’s analysis how seven journalists were arrested during that time under the 1974 Special Powers Act. After a state of emergency was declared in November 1987, a martial law regulation ordered that reports opposing the upcoming elections and covering the protests remain prohibited. In 1988, a national press ban on reporting about election violence (which claimed at least 13 lives, as seen from Mohaiemen’s analysis) was declared. Censorship coupled with a turbulent political climate continued until the regime fell owing to a pro-democracy mass uprising — backed by students and members of civil society, among others who sought democracy — in December 1990.
Turbulence and Democracy
With the advent of democracy in the political arena of Bangladesh in 1991, power mostly alternated between the two political parties — the Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Both leaders of the parties had a similar approach toward media censorship; the only difference lay in the subjects that were monitored more heavily, which were simultaneously used to target critical voices.
BNP leader Khaleda Zia was the first democratically appointed prime minister of the nation; it was during her rule that blasphemy cases and politics of religion skyrocketed. Possibly one of the most infamous cases in the history of independent Bangladesh was that of Taslima Nasreen. In 1993, in an increasingly Muslim (rather than secular) Bangladesh, Nasreen published her novel titled “Lajja” (or Shame) set in the mise-en-scene of the anti-Hindu riots in the country as a consequence of the Babri Masjid demolition the year before. The government immediately banned the book. What aggravated the situation was a gravely misquoted interview in The Statesman newspaper of India, where, as Nasreen later clarified, her call for a reassessment of Shariah was incorrectly stated as the need to revise the Quran to ensure women’s rights. Although there had been noteworthy blasphemy cases in the past, Nasreen’s indictment roused Islamists in the country in a whole new way, allowing groups such as Touhidi Janata Jamat to come to the national limelight. Lawsuits, death threats, a bounty announced on Nasreen’s head in Sylhet forced her to ultimately flee into exile. In the years to come, debates surrounding her surfaced a number of times, especially when new books were published, or because of any statement she might have passed that did not go well with religious fundamentalists.
Another topic that Awami League and BNP leaders regularly engaged in conflict over involved ownership of the political legacy of the independence war. During the BNP’s regime, creative expressions and works of art that popularized the role of Sheikh Mujib in the independence struggle were banned, such as Tanvir Mokammel’s documentary “Sreeti Ekattor” (Remembrance of 1971) and Tareque Masud’s “Muktir Gaan” (Song of Freedom).
Similarly, conversations involving India became one particularly sensitive issue. As learned from a senior newspaper editor of the time, all licensed publications had to agree to a set of conditions, including one that instructed to not publish any news that could potentially “harm relations” with national allies. The ICT Act, which came into effect in 2006, was aimed to monitor information on online platforms and regulate e-commerce; the law grew to impose more serious effects in later years when social media starts to play a greater role in the lives of people.
As tensions between the Awami League and BNP flared, a caretaker government was installed for a brief period between 2007 and 2008. Local media played a big role in ending the tenure of the military during these years, defying censorship laws and not succumbing to the threats or cajoling by the authorities. Regardless, journalists during this time faced immense difficulties and were routinely picked up for interrogation. One such case involved Forum, a monthly magazine published by the country’s largest circulating English newspaper The Daily Star. In one of its issues, a cover story titled “Prince of Bogra” elaborated on the involvement of intelligence agencies with militant Islamist groups during the BNP era. Tasneem Khalil, the author of the report, was abducted and allegedly tortured while in custody, according to reports by Human Rights Watch (HRW). As he was also involved with international media, Khalil’s case caused a mass outcry globally, which finally allowed for his release. He eventually fled into exile in Sweden as a political refugee, from where he now runs an independent investigative journalism news platform called Netra News. Criticism was also stirred globally as censorship extended to international media; issues of the Economist magazine containing negative reports about the regime entered Dhaka with the relevant pages torn out.
As elections drew near, the military regime started to become increasingly unsteady, and religion once again entered the political periphery of the country. Attacks were launched on writers and students for any alleged blasphemous reference, such as when Islami Chatra Shibir threatened members of the group Udichi for staging the drama “Mandar” at Rajshahi University. Jamaat e Islami also announced its manifesto during this time, which included a section calling for a “blasphemy law.” However, the events backfired, leading to a large “anti-Islamist” vote bloc to emerge during the national polls.
The Rise of a Crackdown on Dissent
“Journalists expected the 2009 return to democracy to be accompanied with new appreciation for the press, whose voices had made the [caretaker government’s] tenure increasingly difficult. But perversely, government interference has now increased to the point that by 2012 there are regular reports of actions against a blog, blogger, or even Facebook accounts,” writes Mohaiemen. He further explores how press freedom’s landscape has been dotted with censorship from the start of the 2010s. Aside from press freedom, this was a time when social media and new films and exhibitions also came under the watchful gaze of censorship.
Fast forward to 2013, and the country saw a spate of assaults against writers, artists, and publishers by the forces of Islamic extremism. That year was tied to a raw nerve in Bangladesh’s history — the liberation war of 1971. The country came alive with protests demanding the capital punishment of an influential war criminal, Abdul Quader Mollah. A blogger and one of the organizers of the protests, Ahmed Rajib Haider was hacked to death outside his house during the protests, allegedly because he was an atheist. A group named Hefazat-e-Islam came into the spotlight during that period as it demanded the government enact blasphemy laws against “atheist bloggers.” It rose to prominence by harnessing the extremist Islamic ideals of its followers.
In 2015, a hit-list containing 84 names was circulated on the internet by a militant group called Ansar Bangla. Following a series of attacks and killings (the murder of Avijit Roy at the national bookfair a particularly horrific episode of the series), international writers including Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood urged the government to take stringent measures to ensure a space for free thinking. With the rise of a crackdown on dissent by machete-wielding extremists, it was upon the writers to ensure their own safety. After all, the Information and Communications Technology Act 2006 (amended in 2013) could “be used to prosecute anyone who publishes anything on or offline that hurts ‘religious sentiment’ or prejudices the ‘image of the state,’” as Lit Hub noted.
As killings relatively abated and more traditional censorship grew, a hostile climate for freethinking rolled in over the years. Shahidul Alam’s arrest in 2018 — for covering the road safety movement and speaking to Al Jazeera about what he witnessed on the ground — garnered relentless criticism internationally. In the same year, the Digital Security Act came into play.
Shahidul Alam’s niece, Sofia Karim, an activist and architect who staunchly advocated for his release back in 2018, said:
My uncle (who always spoke out regardless of which party was in power) is one of countless citizens targeted for what should be part and parcel of every democracy: the right to criticize those who rule us — through art, satire, reportage, music, poetry and human expression in all its forms. When these collapse, the void is filled with a culture of fear driven by power that operates without checks and balances. Bangladesh was created as a democracy, through pain, courage and sacrifice on the part of the people. To dismantle that is a betrayal. Repression, arbitrary arrests, torture, enforced disappearances, and extra judicial killings should not occur in Bangladesh, under this government or any other. The country deserves better.
Since the Digital Security Act was passed, 1,000 cases have been filed under the law. According to Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights monitor, it has been used largely by politicians and businessmen.
The latest controversy surrounding the act came as Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a photo-journalist, was arrested under the act, 53 days after his mysterious disappearance on March 10 this year. Ever since his arrest, hashtags like #freekajol and #RepealDSA have gone viral. An upsurge has also been noted in cases surrounding this act during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dhaka Tribune reports that 327 cases were filed under the Digital Security Act in the first three months of this year with the Cyber Crime Tribunal. Odhikar further claims that 59 journalists have been harassed for their work in the first three months of 2020.
A journalist, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Diplomat, “We have to think twice before writing about some influential figure and alter our language. And when we are dealing with sensitive assignments, we have to be extra-alert in terms of physical safety and legal aspects. My career has been overshadowed by the hands of censorship.”
Azeez Intizar and Sabrina Majed are freelance journalists focusing on South Asia.