Controversial digital law said to limit press freedom in Bangladesh

Rights bodies say free speech under serious threat as government points to flaws in media

Anadolu Agency May 05, 2021
Photo: AA


A senior Bangladeshi journalist has been fighting for justice for more than two years in a case brought by the government under the country's controversial Digital Security Act (DSA).

Rashidul Islam is one of dozens of journalists charged under the act, which was passed by the government in October 2018, just two months before the country's general elections.

Human rights defenders and experts say the law has vague provisions. One of the clauses of the law on “Digital or Electronic Fraud” says: “If any person commits fraud by means of any digital or electronic medium then that activity of that particular person will be an offense under the Act.”

Islam was charged formally in connection with a story about election results from the southeastern district of Khulna in the 2018 elections. He said his story was based on the administrative head of the district's declaration, but that was not enough to satisfy the government.

In one constituency, there were 22,419 more votes cast than the total number of eligible voters, indicating an overall irregularity and ballot staffing, he said, adding: "I have a recording of the result announcement.”

He added that the results were changed in the government's written sheets the next morning.

Despite the fact that he wrote another updated news report, Islam told Anadolu Agency that the "district administration filed a case against me and another journalist on the charge of making false, fabricated, and provocative information."

“Police arrested my colleague Hedait Hossain Mollah, and I went into hiding for 22 days before securing court bail,” he said, adding: “It was the most suffocating period of my life.”

"It's a black law," Mohammad Abdullah, president of a local journalists' union, told Anadolu Agency, asking for the release of journalists charged under the act, comparing its provisions to “asking a swimmer to swim after his hands and legs have been tied.”

Abdullah said that the government is repeatedly misusing such provisions of the law just to harass journalists and critics.

Press Freedom Day

“At least 247 journalists were reportedly subjected to attacks, harassment, and intimidation by state officials and others affiliated with Bangladesh government in 2020," said Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a statement on Monday marking World Press Freedom Day.

According to the rights group, more than 900 cases have been filed under "the draconian Digital Security Act," with nearly 1,000 people prosecuted and 353 arrested, many of them journalists.

“Media critical of the ruling Awami League party is frequently censored,” it added.

The act is being used "to harass and indefinitely detain journalists, activists, and others critical of the government, resulting in a chilling impact on freedom of dissent," the statement said.

“The UN and donors should continue to take every opportunity to call on the government to repeal the Digital Security Act and release all those detained under it,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) said in a separate statement that the media in Bangladesh has turned into “government property,” despite the fact that the theme of this year's Press Freedom Day is "Information as a Public Goods."

“Due to the failure of professional journalism in Bangladesh, not only growth but also people’s trust in the media is being halted,” said Dr Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of TIB.

Government blames media outlets

Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury, a media advisor to Banglades’s prime minister, told Anadolu Agency that "journalists are not free to write and speak," adding that most media outlets are owned by various corporate houses, businessmen, and politicians and “they, not professional journalists, are in control of the media."

“Media owners are gaining financial and political interests, and journalists are hardly willing to risk losing their jobs,” according to Chowdhury, a onetime journalist.

“Whenever a journalist is subjected to the Digital Security Act, we see regular reports and complaints from rights organizations,” he said, “but we don't see any voice when dozens of journalists are fired or lose their jobs because of the owners.”

He said there is no government censorship and that the media houses enforce their own restrictions.


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