High Price of Freedom of Speech and of The Press in Bangladesh

Freedom of speech remains a contentious topic in Bangladesh. Among the fundamental rights guaranteed by the country’s constitution is freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But even so, many suffer from a culture of censorship and impunity. In Bangladesh, these two pillars of democracy come with a staggering price.

When the Awami League won the 2008 Election, it promised to protect and uphold freedom of the press. As a matter of fact, its election manifesto stated that freedom of media and information will be ensured, and that trial for the assassination of journalists will be made expeditiously. All these, however, have been all been empty promises.

The past few years saw the decline in the standard of free expression in Bangladesh. Despite the constitutional guarantee and promises of the ruling party, the country has nevertheless implemented laws that curtail such freedom and has established a government that attempts to inhibit all forms of media and speech.

For instance, an author named Shamsuzzoha Manik was apprehended by authorities for publishing a book called “Islam Bitorko,” which translates into “Debate on Islam.” The book was branded as blasphemous.

Bangladesh’s laws cover all forms of publication—whether print or online. This means blogs and social media posts are affected. A person can be arrested for a mere online comment that expresses opposition against the government. Such was the case for student activist Dilip Roy, who was charged in 2016 for making “derogatory remarks” against the prime minister through a Facebook status where Roy criticized the prime minister’s decision to support the construction of a coal power plant that poses a threat to mangrove forests in the country.

Punishment for writing provocative blasphemous of anti-government sentiments involves jail time and taking down books from circulation. Through Bangladesh’s Information and Telecommunication (ICT) Act, the penalty for an online offense can range from 7 to 14 years of imprisonment. The parameters of such law target writings that are defamatory, blasphemous, or are violations against national security. Thus, the number of arrests for online expression has increased throughout the years.

The attack against free speech in Bangladesh is not a new phenomenon. As a matter of fact, it has been a subject of heavy scrutiny ever since the 1970s, when poet Daud Haider received death threats for writing poems that criticized religious beliefs. He was later exiled from the country and lived as a stateless person in India.

The difference between the 1970s and today, however, is that the threats have become increasingly alarming. Journalists and free thinkers are facing threats from two fronts: the law and extremist groups.

Radical Islamists were suspected to be behind the assassination of bloggers who staunchly criticized Islamic fundamentalism. One of the victims was writer Avijit Roy, a Bangladeshi-American activist. He was hacked to death in Dhaka while walking home from a book fair. A month later Washiqur Rahman suffered the same tragic fate after he took to social media to express his outrage over Roy’s death.

Broadcast media, on the other hand, is also a victim of repression. It is controlled largely by the government. The Ministry of Information is particularly in charge of handling licenses for commercial and community TV stations. In 2011, the Bangladeshi government introduced a law that censors TV programs and movies. The law, in effect, prevents broadcasters from airing material that directly or impliedly criticizes the government and its offices. Content relating to non-Muslim festivals such as Christmas has also been banned.

In 2015, the government also began requiring online news portals to register themselves with authorities. Journalists working for unregistered media outlets would have their accreditations canceled.

The country’s intense political climate also affects how news outlets are being run. Private media outlets, including Bangladesh newspapers, are highly partisan when it comes to political coverage. Owners of these networks and publications control what is being published or broadcasted in such a manner that it would reflect their personal political affiliations. Reporting on social issues, such as labor, in almost all Bangladesh newspaper outlets have become biased in favor of businessmen and politicians.

Censorship is no longer limited to broadcast media and online blogs. Internet-based content such as those on YouTube, Facebook, and other social-media platforms are now covered by it. The Bangladeshi government even went as far as directly enlisting Facebook as an agent of censorship, requesting a set of rules specific only to Bangladesh that would regulate critical religious posts.

The attacks against members of the media as well as independent bloggers have resulted in what is known as self-censorship. Violence against journalists coupled with government’s lack of action and refusal to serve justice has resulted in heightened self-censorship. People are now more afraid to express their views on whatever platform. Some journalists are avoiding sensitive topics such as those involving the government, military, and judiciary. Some have stopped writing altogether out of fear of getting punished.

According to a blogger named Bonya Ahmed, many of the writers and activists that were killed heavily campaigned for equal rights for women, minorities, and the LGBT community in the country.

Head of Reporters Without Borders Benjamin Ismail stated that the press freedom situation in Bangladesh has grown to alarming levels. The country’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index is slipping. Its rank is 146 out of 180 countries, down from last year’s 144. See the report here

Despite calls for reform and action from human rights watchers and activists locally and globally, the situation in Bangladesh has yet to see any improvement. Instead, a culture of impunity has gone into full bloom.

The current administration led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has shown low tolerance to criticism, instituting a crackdown on Bangladesh newspapers and broadcast networks that oppose the government.

The judiciary has failed to mete out justice for the victims. Investigations for cases are generally slow. Not only has the government failed to stop the killings, but it has resorted to victim-blaming and instilling fear in people by warning them to be careful about what they say and write lest they suffer harrowing consequences. More often than not, journalists and bloggers are merely advised to stop writing or flee the country to avoid imprisonment or persecution.

Free expression and press have become so repressed and undermined in Bangladesh that there’s fear of it becoming a taboo. For the government, the arrests are justified for being false criticism. For journalists, activists, freethinkers, and every Bangladeshi the arrests constitute acts of repression, of silencing people and stifling their minds.