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Bangladeshi Diaspora Journalists Push Back Against Democratic Backsliding at Home

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Bangladeshi Diaspora Journalists Push Back Against Democratic Backsliding at Home

Back home, ruling party activists threaten and assault journalists’ relatives to silence their criticism of the government.

Bangladeshi Diaspora Journalists Push Back Against Democratic Backsliding at Home

Bangladeshi artists carry an artwork during a protest against the arrest of journalist Rozina Islam in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 20, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu

In December 2022, the Bangladeshi High Commission in Canada issued a statement that sent shockwaves through the Bangladeshi Canadian community. The statement urged all “peace-loving and patriotic Bangladeshi-Canadians to be aware of those spreading anti-Bangladesh propaganda from Canada” and warned that individuals and media involved in such activities would not receive consular services.

This announcement has had a chilling effect on many Bangladeshis living in Canada. Fearing persecution of their relatives back home, some of them have toned down their calls for the restoration of democracy and respect for human rights in their home country.

Explaining his decision to curtail his activism following the High Commission statement, one Bangladeshi, who wished to remain anonymous, said: “I have to go back to Bangladesh, as my parents are living there. So, I do not want to be arrested or put my family in danger for posting criticism against Bangladesh on Facebook.”

Despite Bangladesh’s economic growth and development under the Awami League (AL) government, the country paints a grim picture on several internationally recognized indicators of democracy, freedom, and human rights as it slides toward authoritarianism. The global Press Freedom Index (PFI) 2023 ranks Bangladesh at 163, several rungs lower than even Afghanistan at 152. In 2022, Bangladesh was ranked at 162, lower than Afghanistan at 154 and Russia at 155.

Human rights groups are drawing attention to a disturbing pattern of extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and imprisonment of critics and political opponents under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s regime.

In order to control the flow of information that is critical of its policies and actions, the AL government has enacted draconian laws like the Digital Security Act (DSA). Government spokespeople claim that the DSA aims at enhancing cybersecurity. In reality, it is not. Consider this: The DSA was unable to safeguard the recent leak of personal data of 50 million Bangladeshis.

The list of persecuted individuals is extensive and diverse, encompassing academics, journalists like Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year Shahidul Alam, businessmen, cartoonists, opposition parliamentarians like Ilias Ali, and political opponents. In the past decade, writers, journalists, and political activists have been forced to flee the country, seeking exile in foreign lands to escape persecution, torture, and humiliation at home.

Once out of the country, however, Bangladeshi activists and journalists in the diaspora exercise their right to freedom of speech and expression. As a result, a growing number of diaspora media outlets, YouTube analysts, and commentators have become immensely popular, causing concern for the Bangladeshi government, as evident from the statement issued by the Bangladeshi High Commission in Canada.

Back home, through the implementation of the DSA and strategic control of media outlets owned by government beneficiaries, the government has managed to control the flow of critical information reaching the public. However, it has struggled to control a group of diaspora journalists who have collaborated on stories exposing corruption and human rights abuses, including the Al Jazeera documentary “All the Prime Minister’s Men,” and German broadcaster DW’s documentary coverage of severe abuses by the U.S.-sanctioned paramilitary force, Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).

Swedish-based investigative news site Netra News, which is blocked in Bangladesh, has also published numerous reports, including uncovering the existence of an illegal secret prison called Aynaghar (House of Mirrors) in Dhaka’s military barracks. Netra News Editor Tasneem Khalil drew attention to the benefits of being based in Sweden as a journalist. “Unlike the hostile environment for journalism in Bangladesh, here, in Sweden, press freedom laws and a democratic culture provide us robust protections,” he told The Diplomat.

A key reason behind the rise of diaspora journalism in Bangladesh is that while many journalists in the country avoid reporting on sensitive issues, diaspora journalists step in to speak up. In the course of my co-authored research on the safety of Bangladeshi journalists, I found that many journalists self-censor to remain safe.

Washington-based exiled journalist Mushfiqul Fazal Ansarey, who is now executive editor of a U.S.-based foreign policy magazine, “South Asia Perspectives,” and editor of a Bengali news site, Justnewsbd, has pioneered a trend in Bangladeshi diaspora journalism. He regularly attends press briefings of the White House, the U.S. State Department, and the United Nations in New York.

While Bangladeshi ruling party leaders often criticize the United States for demanding free and fair elections and imposing sanctions on the RAB and its top security officials, Ansarey, who was also an assistant press secretary of former Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia during 2001-2006, consistently asks pointed questions about human rights, democracy, and elections in Bangladesh to U.S. and U.N. spokespersons.

Ansarey told The Diplomat that he believes his style of journalism is effective because previously there was not much awareness about Bangladesh in international media.

He believes he has been able to raise awareness in the international media about human rights challenges, the Rohingya refugee crisis, and democracy in Bangladesh. His raising issues has drawn the attention of journalists from influential media outlets like the New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, etc., who attend these briefings in Washington and New York, he says, even as it serves to educate U.S. officials about complex daily politics in Bangladesh.

Previously, Bangladeshi television talk shows were powerful platforms for editorializing and influencing political opinions. But they have gradually lost their audiences to YouTube-based political commentators-in-exile, who regularly produce critical commentary about Sheikh Hasina, her governance, and the partisan role of state and security officials, among others.

Figures like Paris-based Pinaki Bhattacharya and the U.S.-based Nayeb Ali, Elias Hossain, Kanak Sarwar, and Shahed Alam have gained millions of views on their YouTube channels. Hossain boasts 2.2 million subscribers, Bhattacharya has 1.08 million, Alam’s Banglainfotube has 0.7 million, Sarwar 0.5 million subscribers, and Ali’s Peaceful TV channel has 0.8 million subscribers.

In this regard, Bangladeshi veteran journalist and Professor at Brac University Afsan Chowdhury wrote, “names such as Iliyas, Kanak Srawar, Pinaki Bhattacharya, etc. are very well known and bigger household names than most Bangladesh media people. And, they are followed by hundreds of thousands, often millions.”

Explaining this shift in media consumption, Fahmidul Huq, a visiting professor specializing in film and media at New York’s Bard College, told The Diplomat that “excessive partisan commentaries by mainstream TV talk show hosts” has prompted viewers to “shift their attention to YouTube-based commentaries and analysis.”

To muzzle these diaspora voices, members of the Awami League and its affiliates have been filing cases under the DSA against diaspora journalists and YouTube commentators. They are bullied as “anti-state,” “traitors,” “terrorists,” and “anti-independence” forces in social media by ruling party members and in media sympathetic to the government.

Some of the relatives of these diaspora critics back home have been intimidated, physically attacked, and even jailed. Sarwar’s sister was imprisoned. A brother of journalist Zulkarnain Saer Khan, who worked as an undercover journalist with Al Jazeera’s investigative unit to produce “All the Prime Minister’s Men” and exposed significant corruption by a ruling partyman and official in the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), was severely beaten. Khalil’s mother was threatened.

Canberra-based author Faham Abdus Salam’s book “In Search of Bengali Mediocracy” was prohibited from being sold in the Ekushey book fair, Bangladesh’s signature book fair, and the Kolkata book fair in India, while the website of the U.K.-based Daily Amar Desh, which used to be published from Dhaka before being shut down, was also taken down several times by exploiting loopholes within U.S. copyright law.

In most well-known cases of diaspora suppression, foreign governments and activists extend support to diaspora activists by issuing statements and diplomatically engaging with the government.

While the government’s campaign of intimidation has been successful in deterring a few diaspora Bangladeshis, the strategy has mostly backfired.

Well-known diaspora journalists and activists told The Diplomat that they are not going to back down from doing their work, even if their relatives back home face the worst outcome in the country.

“At the crossroad of this misrule, we will say together, we revolt,” say the lyrics of a song by Sydney-based songwriter-singer Rahat Shantunu. The song, which is dedicated to Bangladesh’s opposition politics, echoes the will of these Bangladeshi diaspora journalists, who are determined to persist with their work, albeit at a dire cost.