In Bangladesh, the War on the Press Rages On

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In Bangladesh, the War on the Press Rages On

With general elections due early next year, the ruling Awami League is intensifying its assault on what remains of the country’s free media.

In Bangladesh, the War on the Press Rages On

A boy joins adults during a demonstration against the death in prison of writer Mushtaq Ahmed, who was arrested on charges of violating the sweeping digital security, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Feb. 26, 2021. The poster reads “I am Mushtaq and autocrat Sheikh Hasina is my killer.”

Credit: AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu

In the early hours of March 29, at around 4 a.m., journalist Shamsuzzaman Shams was picked up from his home in Dhaka by plainclothes police officers. For the next 20 hours, there was complete radio silence. Around 12:30 a.m. of the following day, his colleagues got a phone call from his phone. Shams said that he was being released and the police were dropping him off at Agargaon, some 2 kilometers from the Prime Minister’s Office in the capital city.

Within 30 minutes of the drop-off, he was picked up again.

Shams, a reporter for Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s largest national daily, was presented in court the following day, and was sent to jail after being arrested in a case filed against him under the Digital Security Act (DSA). Prothom Alo’s editor, Matiur Rahman, was also sued under the same law.

One might have mistaken Shams for a hardened criminal, judging by how he was picked by the law enforcement agency and promptly sent to jail. His photos in the newspapers on his way to the courtroom show him cuffed and guarded by seven to eight police officers. But what Shams, and his editor, were really guilty of was publishing a story on the country’s high inflation rates on the eve of Bangladesh’s 52nd Independence Day.

Shams and Rahman were later granted bail, but this was not the end of it. On April 9, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina openly slammed Prothom Alo in Parliament, calling the paper “the enemy of the Awami League, democracy, and the people of the country.” A few hours later, a group of 20-something men raided Prothom Alo’s office. Led by a man who called himself “Sheikh Hasina’s worker,” the men defiled the newspaper’s logo and threatened to burn down the office if obstructed.

The Prothom Alo farce is not an isolated case. In fact, in the first three months of this year, a total of 56 journalists have been sued, tortured, harassed, intimidated, or obstructed from doing their jobs, according to Ain O Salish Kendra, a Bangladeshi legal aid and human rights organization.

Charges under the DSA are a particularly common method of silencing journalists. The Center for Governance Studies (CGS) reports that since 2013, at least 4,500 people, the majority of them politicians and journalists, have been sued under the Information Technology (ICT) Act 2006 and its successor, the Digital Security Act.

Over a 47-month period since the DSA’s inception in 2018, the CGS found that 280 journalists had been accused of violations, 84 of whom were detained. The CGS also found that 98 percent of the cases filed under the DSA were never resolved.

Ever since the law was introduced in 2018, human rights watchdogs and activists have been demanding it be scrapped, claiming that the government has been using it to silence dissent and muzzle the press. It is well documented that journalists are frequently sued under the DSA for anything that pro-government activists deem “offensive.”

In 2020 alone, at least 10 editors of national dailies and online news portals were sued under the DSA for reports criticizing the ruling party’s leaders. Journalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol was picked up that year by law enforcement agencies; he spent 53 days in enforced disappearance and then seven months in prison. He was also brutally tortured in custody.

That same year, cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore and writer Mushtaq Ahmed were picked up from their homes, taken to an undisclosed location and tortured. Kishore served 10 months in prison for violating the DSA with his allegedly offensive cartoons. Ahmed later died in custody in 2021.

The press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) terms the DSA “one of the world’s most draconian laws for journalists.” Among other things, the law permits searches and arrests without any warrant and can result in a sentence of up to 14 years in prison for any journalist if the content they publish is deemed offensive. It is widely argued that the law’s provisions are too vague or broad and may prompt exploitation and misuse.

Amid widespread criticism, Law Minister Anisul Huq stated in 2022 that the DSA was enacted to prevent cybercrimes in the country. But that same year, a survey report by the Cybercrime Awareness Foundation revealed that over 55 percent of cybercrime victims were not in fact getting proper legal assistance and that the rate of cybercrime-related police complaints was up by a significant margin, indicating that the law minister’s words were yet to match the reality of things.

Amid an atmosphere of fear created by the misuse of the DSA and the general tone of hostility toward dissent and freedom of expression, journalists and media outlets routinely take extra care to censor themselves. In its annual report published in 2022, RSF reported that members and supporters of the Awami League “often subject the journalists they dislike to targeted physical violence, while judicial harassment campaigns are carried out to silence certain journalists or force media outlets to close. In such a hostile environment, editors take care not to challenge anything the government says.”

It is not a coincidence that the Prothom Alo, the target of the latest attack, was praised by RSF for being one of only two Bangladeshi news outlets that “manage to maintain a certain editorial independence.”

Those who fail to censor themselves often end up in the government’s bad books. In February, the government shut down The Daily Dinkal, the country’s main opposition newspaper. The month before, the government blocked some 191 websites for publishing “anti-state news.”

The hostile attitude of the Bangladeshi government also allows other parties, such as criminals with links to powerful political figures, to get away with crimes against journalists. More often than not, violence against journalists goes unpunished. Journalists, mostly district correspondents, are frequently targeted by political activists, criminals, and sometimes even law enforcement agencies, for reporting on corruption and human rights.

In the case of exiled journalists, their family members in the country are often targeted in an effort to intimidate them into silence. In March of this year, journalist Zulkarnain Saer Khan’s brother was attacked by four men with iron rods. Khan is one of the journalists who worked on an investigative report for Al Jazeera that linked high-ranking government officials to organized crime and corruption.

Whistleblowers, witnesses, and sources are also not spared. Earlier this month, the German media outlet Deutsche Welle (DW) published an investigative report on Bangladesh’s notorious law enforcement agency, the Rapid Action Battalion. A few days after the report was published, the police picked up Nafiz Alam, one of the interviewees in the DW report who spoke about custodial torture, arresting him over a 2021 pornography case. Alam was also charged under narcotics laws after police allegedly found illegal alcohol in his house.

Frustrations grow as even the killing of journalists often goes unpunished. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 34 journalists have been killed in Bangladesh since 1993. More than half – 18 of them – were killed since 2009, when the current government came into power. Most of the cases went unresolved. The most famous of them, the 2012 Sagar-Runi murder case, is now in its 11th year of investigation and the court’s deadline to submit the probe report was extended for the 97th time on April 10 this year.

In the 52-year-long history of Bangladesh, governments have seen the media mostly as a mouthpiece. Journalists and new outlets have faced the wrath of the powerful whenever they crossed the limits set by the authorities. Since 1971, both the Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Awami League have heavily cracked down on the media whenever in power.

In 2009, when the current government came to power, Bangladesh ranked 121st out of 180 countries in RSF’s World Press Freedom Index. After 14 years under the Awami League, which championed freedom of the press when it was in the opposition, the country now ranks 162nd – the lowest in South Asia.

In a recent meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen insisted that “the Digital Security Act is not to curb freedom of the press. Bangladesh Awami League believes in freedom of the press.” But with the next general elections due early next year, and with a history of escalated media crackdowns right before elections, Bangladesh continues to be a dangerous place to be a journalist.