Freedom of the Press currently faces a dark era in Bangladesh. The country’s print, electronic, and online media struggle to survive amid rabid abuse of draconian Laws and authoritarian control. Journalists come under physical attacks by the people having impunity under the incumbent regime. Many journalists languish in arbitrary detentions inside the country or have chosen a life in exile to escape the ongoing repressions from the State. Freedom of Assembly and Association for anyone having a dissenting voice is mostly denied in the country.
National Mass Online Media Policy imposing mandatory registration of online news portals
The Bangladesh Government has adopted an amendment to the National Online Mass Media Police 2017 (Amended 2020). The Cabinet approved the amendment in its weekly meeting chaired by the Prime Minister on 31 August 2020. This latest policy imposes further control over all the licensed media, to run online news portals, including newspapers, private televisions, and radio channels. Every portal will require mandatory registration from the authorities, according to the country’s Cabinet Secretary.
The Cabinet approval requiring a mandatory registration for news portal is imposed a week after the Editors’ Council released a statement expressing its opposition to the provision. This is an additional blow against Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Expression since the Digital Security Act-2018 was massively abused in Bangladesh. The statement of the Editor’s Council protested the Digital Security Act and demanded necessary amendment to the draconian law urgently. Referring to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic the Editor’s Council’s statement lamented, “The number of readers and circulation of newspapers has decreased. Advertisements have also declined alarmingly. Newspapers are trying different ways to survive.”. “But the newspaper industry has never received any effective help and cooperation from the Government for this purpose. The newspaper industry is deprived of government support that the profit-making general industries have received. The newspapers made demands to the concerned ministries at different times. But sadly, it has been noticed that the demands have never been taken into account by the government. On the contrary, the service industry earned indifference and an uncooperative attitude,” the statement added. The adoption of the amended draconian, online media policy indicates that the Editor’s Council’s demands and dissents are dealt with disgrace by the government as far as freedom of press is concerned in Bangladesh.
Pro-opposition online news portal blocked after its relaunching
The Bangladesh Government has blocked a pro-opposition news portal within 12 hours since its launching from the United Kingdom. The Amar Desh Dot Co Dot UK was launched on 30 August 2020 commemorating International Day for the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. In Bangladesh the authorities blocked its website, according to information obtained from journalists. The news portal is edited by Mr. Mahmudur Rahman, who used to be the Acting Editor of The Daily Amar Desh – a pro-opposition national daily forcibly shut down by the incumbent government of Sheikh Hasina on 11 April 2013. Mahmudur Rahman was arrested from the newspaper’s Dhaka based editorial office and since then arbitrarily detained. After a prolonged arbitrary detention and imprisonment he was released on bail on 23 November 2016. The Police and the ruling party men have filed 126 cases against Mahmudur. The cases include sedition, cyber crimes, criminal and civil defamation, arson and bomb blasts, for his critical opinion against the Sheikh Hasina’s government, and exposing corruption. He survived police torture while in arbitrary detention. Mahmudur escaped attempted assassination by the ruling party student wing – Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL) leaders at the Kushtia District Court premises when he was appearing in one of the cases on 22 July 2018.
The blockade of the Amar Desh Dot Co Dot UK website points to the fact that the Bangladesh Government does not tolerate the views of the opposition and virtual exposure of reports on corruption and misdeeds of the incumbent authorities.
Journalist brutally beaten with his father for publishing news on corruption
Publishing reports on corruption has become a life-threatening task in Bangladesh. Shariful Alam Chowdhury, a correspondent for the Daily Samakal from Muradnagar Upazila of Cumilla district and general secretary of the Muradnagar Press Club, came under attack allegedly led by Darora Union Parishad (local government units in the rural area) chairman named Shahjahan Mia. A group of attackers unleashed their wrath on the journalist and his family members with sharp, blunt instruments in retaliation to publication of reports of alleged corruption and abuse of power. The incident took place on 4 July 2020 when the journalist’s parents were also seriously injured. Both parents’ hands were broken with abrasion cuts due to being hit with sharp weaponries. Shariful sustained seven fractures in his four limbs, according to the Doctor treating him at the Cumilla Medical College Hospital. The doctors later transferred Shariful to the National Institute of Traumatology and Orthopaedic Rehabilitation (NITOR) in Dhaka for necessary treatments for the critical fractures of his limbs.
Shariful’s father Abdul Matin Chowdhury registered a case with the Muradnagar police station on 4 July. The Muradnagar police arrested Shahjahan Mia and the fellow perpetrators, who were made defendants in the case, in that evening. On 5 July, the following day, the Judicial Magistrate Court granted bail to the alleged mastermind Shahjahan Mia. Two days later, his fellow perpetrators were also granted bail from the Judicial Magistrate Court through virtual hearing of the bail petitions.
The prompt release of the perpetrators of the incident of hacking journalist and his family members resulting critical injuries indicate that the perpetrators enjoy impunity. In contrast, many dissidents are languishing in jails across Bangladesh while the Judiciary rejects their bail petitions.
Performance protesting extrajudicial killing faced disturbance from ruling party men
The 31st founding anniversary program of the Drik Gallery – led by acclaimed photo-journalist Shahidul Alam, had to be cut short on 4 September due to a disturbance by the ruling party men in Dhaka. The Drik Gallery staged a street performance titled ‘Crossfire.’ Its objective was to protest the extra-judicial killings in Bangladesh marking its 31st anniversary at the Teachers and Students’ Centre (TSC) area at the University of Dhaka.
A large number of people carrying pro-ruling party placards intercepted the pre-announced event at the venue while massive contingent of police occupied Shahbagh area, as written by Shahidul Alam. He was detained for 108 days for giving an interview to Al Jazeera on 5 August 2018 about the brutal attack on school students demanding road safety. The hosts had to shorten the event to skip the continuous disturbance from the ruling party men. The law-enforcing agencies did not prevent the intruders.
Exercising the Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association as well as the Freedom of Expression has been an un-imaginable matter for the dissenting voices based within Bangladesh.
Journalists languish in jail in cases filed under the Digital Security Act, as the Courts deny bail
Mr. Shafikul Islam Kajol, a photo-journalist and Editor of the fortnightly magazine ‘Pakkhakal’, was arbitrarily detained after 53 days of disappearance. He languishes in jail since 3 May 2020. Bangladesh’s Judiciary on all levels have consistently rejected the bail petitions that Shafikul’s lawyers have submitted since his arbitrary detention.
Shafikul disappeared on 10 March 2020 after a ruling party lawmaker filed a case under the Digital Security Act-2018 following a scandalous sex-trade story exposed by the Rapid Action Battalion in February. The police claimed that Shafikul had trespassed into his native country from India on 2 May midnight and detained him since then.
Bangladesh’s judicial system fails to uphold Shafikul’s right to justice and the right liberty under an authoritarian illegitimate government in place.