Quelling press freedom in Bangladesh: Democratic downslide an ominous trend across South Asia

The imposition of draconian laws in Bangladesh and the government’s strenuous efforts to defend itself against the smear campaign and attacks against journalists and media persons reflect a familiar picture across South Asian nations like India and Sri Lanka where electronic surveillance and stifling dissent have become all too common

Dr Koyel Basu Oct 16, 2023
Press freedom in Bangladesh (Photo: Twitter)

The recent attack on Mosharrof Shah, a correspondent of Prothom Alo, a private media outlet in Bangladesh, manifests a deep-rooted malaise in South Asian democracies that are increasingly becoming autocratic and intolerant. The attack occurred in the campus of University of Chittagong when 15 to 20 men beat him up with sticks and cricket stumps asking him to stop his reporting on Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL). (‘Bangladesh student journalist Mosharroff Shah attacked on University campus,’ 6 October 2023, Source: https://cpj.org/2023/10/bangladeshi-student-journalist-mosharrof-shah-attacked-on-university-campus/)

But this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. There have been assaults on journalists and media persons in the last few months in Bangladesh, including legal threats, police aggression, online harassment, physical attacks during reporting and intimidation of journalists’ families. However, the worst part of the incidents is that the Bangladesh government’s apathy in bringing the perpetrators to book. Instead of giving protection to independent media persons and dissenters doing their jobs, the Bangladesh government is coming down heavily on the democratic rights of these people. This is not only alarming but spells disaster for press freedom in the country. Therefore, it’s not surprising that Reporters Without Borders ranked Bangladesh 162 of 180 countries in its 2022 World Press Freedom Index. It is ranked below Russia (155) and Afghanistan (156).

Repressions and draconian laws

All these crackdowns and repressions on independent media accentuated before the Covid-19 pandemic, the latter giving a pretext to continue with targeting journalists or silencing dissenters, curbing freedom of speech and expression with persistent death threats and abuse inhibiting them from speaking truth to power. Pre-Covid, on 1 October 2018, the draconian all-pervasive retrograde step in media control and manoeuvre was adopted with the passage of Digital Security Act. To muzzle critical voices and to bring disparate independent voices under its sweep, the Act was used across Bangladesh with authors, social activists, journalists and even minors being arrested. For instance, on 29 March 2023, Shams Samsuzzaman, a journalist working for the country’s largest newspaper Prothom Alo was detained and his laptop was seized during a raid on his house. Also, his application for bail was rejected. In another case, the editor of Prothom Alo, Matiur Rahman was arrested for his reporting on crisis in Bangladesh. In February 2021, a minor,  10th grader Paritosh Sarkar, was arrested for allegedly hurting religious sentiments of the people of Bangladesh. He was kept in pre-trial detention in solitary confinement.

Worse than this, killing of journalists too is not uncommon here. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 2 journalists were killed in 2021. Borhan Uddin Muzakkir, a newspaper reporter in southeastern city of Noakhali, died after being shot in the neck while covering clashes between rival factions of the country’s ruling Awami League Party in February 2021. Five days after this happened, Mushtaq Ahmed, a farmer and writer, collapsed and died in Kashimpur High Security prison under mysterious circumstances, after 10 months of detention. (‘South Asian media faces increasing curbs,’ Arafatul Islam, Dharvi Vaid & S. Khan, March 05, 2021. Source: https://www.dw.com/en/press-freedom-day-south-asian-media-faces-increasing-curbs/a-57411996). Also, UN Human Rights Chief Volker Turk called on Bangladesh to suspend the Digital Security Act. He specifically mentioned for imposing a moratorium on its use urging a reform of it at the same time. There were protest marches and demonstrations demanding for revoking and repealing the DSA but the government in a quick change of stance and keeping the upcoming national elections in mind early 2024, introduced replaced it with a new law, the Cyber Security Law 2023 which also invades the digital space. However, many think this is old wine in new bottle and there is not much of a change. Nadia Rehman, the Amnesty International’s interim deputy Regional Director, South Asia, said in a statement released by the organization that, Cyber Security Act is “largely a replication of the draconian [law] that preceded it and retains repressive features which have been used to threaten and restrict the rights to freedom of expression, privacy and liberty in Bangladesh” and therefore incompatible with “international human rights law.” (‘Bangladesh revised a digital security law. Is it really less severe?’, Durga M Sengupta, 20 September 2023. URL: https://restofworld.org/2023/south-asia-newsletter-bangladesh-cyber-security-act/)

South Asian solidarity needed 

The imposition of draconian laws in Bangladesh and the government’s strenuous efforts to defend itself against the smear campaign and attacks against journalists and media persons reflect a familiar picture across South Asian nations like India and Sri Lanka where electronic surveillance and stifling dissent have become all too common. In the name of upholding democracy camouflaged in terms like welfare and governance, South Asian nations are silencing critical voices.

Democracy is in disarray and sedition laws are thrust upon citizen-activists who dare to expose the misdeeds of those in power in the name of anti-national activities. Who can forget the use of the term "Urban Naxals" to detain and persecute the voices of sanity in India? The only remedy for democracy and freedom lovers is building solidarity networks across South Asia to arrest the spread of authoritarianism. This is the only way to assuage the climate of fear hovering over us.

(The writer, whose research interests include human rights and gender inequity, particularly in South Asia, is  Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Jangipur College, Kalyani University, West Bengal. Views are personal. She can be reached at koyelbasu1979@gmail.com.)


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