Media Freedom in Bangladesh: Did it ever exist?

Free media is a key towards any kind of journalism including development journalism. Freedom of the press is a requirement for strong and democratic institutions, which has been recognized since the late 1990s when Bangladesh was going through an evolution from military regime to a civilian rule. At the same time, the press also needs a favourable environment to be able to operate and trail democratic objectives. Lately, there has been absence of “democratic political culture” which at the same time make the political institutions in Bangladesh insubstantial (Ahmed, 2009). A research done by Ahmed on press regulation in Bangladesh reveals that government itself recognizes the inadequacies in laws and regulations relevant to press but it is not keen to bring reforms in those laws and regulations.

Even institutes for creation of journalists in Bangladesh are widely patronized by the government. The Press Institute of Bangladesh (PIB) is an institute that provides training to emerging journalists and is set up by the government. The National Institute of Mass Communication is a similar institute set up by the government, but for television and radio. There is also non-government organizations, like The Bangladesh Centre for Development Journalism and Communication and Mass-line Media Centre, which are supposed to represent as civil society in terms of developing a free media, but their activity is not that visible.

Most of the laws and regulations related to the media tend to be obstructing freedom of press. In terms of achieving democratic goals and representing different perspective of various social communities, media is confronting several problems like threat of persecution due to restrictive laws and even death threats from political goon. Ahmad, through his research, points out that existing laws and regulations relevant to media allows government to put a boundary around the ability of the press in terms of inspecting the government’s action, which eventually hinders the growth of democratic practice among institutes. The study also reveals that ministers in Bangladesh can choose not to provide any sort of information concerning the public to the press under the “oath of secrecy” in Bangladeshi constitutions (Ahmed, 2009). This indicates to the fact that the constitution itself is not protective towards freedom of the press. While legal experts and media scholars are well-aware of these facts and are quite skeptic towards press regulating laws and constitutional provisions, most of the journalists interviewed in Ahmed’s study had very vague knowledge on media laws and regulations.Even when this paper is being written, parliament of Bangladesh passed Digital Security Bill 2018 even if having opposition from the opposition political parties, owners of media houses, and journalists. According to them, it is against the freedom of speech and media and restricts independent journalism.

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This new Digital Security Bill amends some of the previous laws and acts allowing the home ministry to arrest anyone they suspect of committing a crime. Also according to Section 31 under this law, “… a person may face up to three years in jail or a fine of Tk 500 thousand in fine or both if he or she is found to have deliberately published or broadcast something on a website or in electronic form which can spread hatred and create enmity among different groups and communities, and can cause deterioration in law and order” (Hasan, 2018). This means, anyone can be convicted for writing almost anything in any medium which brings the level of media freedom to zero.

Once again, this step by the government has been heavily criticized. Opposition lawmakers and even some members of the parliament who are not from the ruling party have opposed the bill through submitting written statement on withdrawal of this law (Hasan, 2018). International organizations for journalists like Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has also criticized this law and sent out written statement to the President of Bangladesh for not signing the bill (The Daily Prothom Alo, 2018). In spite of having national and international pressure, there is a possibility that government, like always, will stay unnerved regarding this issue and pass this Digital Security Bill.

As of now, according to the Freedom House, Bangladesh’s Freedom of the Press total score is 62 out of 100 which makes the press freedom status not free (“Bangladesh”, 2017). With activation of this Digital Security Bill, this score is expected to get lower.

Another crucial requirement for having a free press is to have a safe environment for the journalists where they feel free to investigate and write about issues concerning the public. This can be achieved through rule of law in favour of the journalist which is nonexistent in Bangladesh. According to Committee to Protect Journalists, between 1992 and 2018, 30 journalists and media workers have been killed in Bangladesh (“Explore CPJ’s database of attacks on the press”, 2018). Majority of the journalist and media workers were murdered. Their database only includes popular cases that has been reported widely in media. Their database does not include bloggers. At least 10 bloggers have been killed from 2013 to 2016, mostly by Islamists who were offended by the bloggers’ write up against Islam (Petersmann, 2018). Below is another chart by UNESCO depicting the number of recorded killings of journalists per year.

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To establish and increase the practice of development journalism, Bangladesh needs to ensure a free media first where journalists and media workers are not threatened for doing their job. Currently, freedom of press in Bangladesh is facing the most perilous time due to adverse political situation, lack of democratic system, strict press regulations and laws. Development journalism is a very delicate, yet a powerful concept, capable to bring positive changes unless goals other than development are pursued. The current political culture in Bangladesh needs to be understanding and lenient towards free media and democracy for proper implication and practice of development journalism that favours the larger interest of the nation.

This is an excerpt from a paper written for a seminar two years ago along with a classmate, Nigar Akbarli. The original title of the paper is “Development Journalism and Its Implications in Bangladesh” where the above excerpt is a part of my contribution. Coincidentally, during that time, the Digital Security Act was on the table, waiting to be approved. I always wanted to publish this excerpt in my blog, but never did. I thought now would be a relatable time. Adding a follow up below for some updated figures.

Follow up 2020:

Two years after the activation of this Digital Security Bill, the Freedom House Score for Bangladesh has come down to 39, while last year it was 41. (You can find some interesting figures and scores in the Bangladesh page of Freedom House.)

Zyma Islam, from the Daily Star, mentions in her article about data obtained by Bangladesh Peace Observatory which reveals that just from March 2020, 142 people have been arrested or kept under official custody so far “for reporting, spreading “misinformed” news, or their social media activity”. While the data is only comprised of the reported cases in the media, the actual number of persecution is much higher; for example, prosecution or penalisation under the Digital Security Act in workplaces. So far, 55 academics have come forward protesting against the Act with their statement in media which says, “maintaining etiquette in cyberspaces can only be done through community management, not through the use of any illogical, malicious criminal law” (Islam, 2020). Following the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a peak in the number of persecution under this Act, more to scare health professionals so that they figuratively cover their mouth in front of media and not spill any information hindering the government’s stance in tackling in the pandemic. Feel free to give Zyma’s article a read for a better insight on this.

Bangladesh is a demo…what?

References:

Ahmed, A 2009, Media, Politics and the Emergence of Democracy in Bangladesh [Ebook] (pp. 50-69). Canadian Journal of Media Studies. Retrieved from http://cjms.fims.uwo.ca/issues/05-01/ahmed.pdf

Bangladesh 2017. Retrieved from https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom- press/2017/bangladesh

Explore CPJ’s database of attacks on the press 2018, Retrieved from https://cpj.org/data/killed/asia/bangladesh/?status=Killed&motiveConfirmed%5B%5D =Confirmed&motiveUnconfirmed%5B%5D=Unconfirmed&type%5B%5D=Journalist &type%5B%5D=Media%20Worker&cc_fips%5B%5D=BG&start_year=1992&end_ye ar=2018&group_by=location

Hasan, R 2018, Digital Security Bill passed. The Daily Star. Retrieved from https://www.thedailystar.net/politics/bangladesh-jatiya-sangsad-passes-digital-security- bill-2018-amid-concerns-journalists-1636114

Islam, Z., 2020. Health Sector: When Critiquing Courts Danger. [online] The Daily Star. Available at: <https://www.thedailystar.net/frontpage/news/health-sector-when-critiquing-courts-danger-1916825&gt; [Accessed 22 June 2020].

Petersmann, Sandra. (2018). Bangladesh blogger: the wrath of a father demanding justice for his son’s murder. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved from https://www.dw.com/en/bangladesh-blogger-the-wrath-of-a-father-demanding-justice-for-his-sons-murder/a-43417391

 

 

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