An international human rights organisation has found that Bangladesh’s freedom of expression scores are significantly below the regional average against the backdrop of record numbers of attacks on journalists and harassment using law, many perpetrated by the state and political actors.
In its ‘Global Expression Report’ released on December 2, the UK-based Article 19 said Bangladesh scores on 0.10 in digital, 0.12 in protection , and 0.17 in transparency which were below the regional average. These organisation conducted study on 39 indexes.
The report said Bangladesh’s progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals set against its on-going failure to secure an enabling environment for expression, ‘with record numbers of attacks on journalists and cases of legal harassment.’
Based on unrivalled qualitative data from 161 countries covering 2018, and a backward glance from 2019 the Global Expression Report details the factors that contribute to the health of freedom of expression globally.
The report said 2018 was an election year for Bangladesh, and saw a corresponding rise in censorship and violence as more than 50 websites were blocked, mobile operators were ordered to slow their speed, and 30 masked individuals attacked 12 journalists on 24 December.
There were also reports of mass arrests of opposition politicians, and 3,00,000 politically motivated criminal cases were filed against opposition party members and supporters. The ruling Awami League dominated the election, though the opposition rejected the result and called for a new vote, added the report.
In June, writer and publisher Shahjahan Bachchu who was known for his religious non-conformism, running a publishing house ‘Bishakha Prokashoni’, and editing online weekly Amader Bikrampur was shot dead.
Mahmudur Rahman, former editor of an opposition-aligned daily, was hospitalised sustaining injuries following an attack on him. It is suspected that he was attacked by the Bangladesh Chhatra League, a pro-government student group, the report said.
Faruq Faisel, regional director of Article 19 for Bangladesh and South Asia said it was necessary to ensure freedom of expression to establish good governance, peace, justice, strong institutions and inclusive society for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
‘But we are lagging behind in securing freedom of expression even though we are ahead of achieving the other goals of SDGs,’ he said.
He said the Digital Security Act was passed, dashing hopes of an opening for online expression after the hard-won repeal of the notorious Section 57.
The Global Expression Report said the new law provides for life sentences for using digital devices to spread negative propaganda against the ‘Liberation War’ or the ‘Father of the Nation’; up to five years’ imprisonment for deliberately publishing defamatory or false or distorted content; and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for hurting religious sentiments, hate speech, or causing deterioration of law and order, he said.
There was public outrage at the new provisions – particularly the provision of the new law, which classes gathering information from inside government offices as espionage, carrying a 14-year jail sentence. Many took to Twitter to defend investigative journalism, declaring #IAmaSpy, said the report.
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