In May 2021, an anti-corruption journalist for the largest newspaper in Bangladesh spent a month investigating government mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis before she sat down to have a meeting with the Health Ministry’s secretary of health services. Just weeks before, she wrote a story about the government’s unregulated purchasing of personal protective equipment and other pandemic-related supplies, some of which were never delivered to hospitals or clinics.
But before she had a chance to interview the official, Rozina Islam, a senior correspondent for the daily Prothom Alo, was detained for violating a colonial-era government secrecy act and has been accused of photographing government documents. She has lost her government building access credentials, her passport, and now faces a potential death sentence for what is the latest — and most public — arrest and punishment of a Bangladeshi journalist who has questioned or criticized the government.
Islam has been charged with violating Bangladesh’s Official Secrets Act for allegedly photographing documents related to the contract negotiations for COVID-19 vaccines. Although now out on bail and back to work, Islam spent a week in jail. During that time, she said she was physically and emotionally harassed and fell ill.
Bangladesh ranks 152 out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index. More than 80 journalists were attacked, injured, or killed while reporting there in 2021. And Islam is just one of several journalists whose arrests made international headlines. In 2018, photojournalist Shahidul Alam spent three months in jail after he publicly criticized the government’s response to student protests over road safety. More recently, Md Akhtaruzzaman was arrested in July 2021 for accusing a government official of corruption.
Police have repeatedly used two major laws, the Official Secrets Act and the Digital Security Act, to curb journalists’ ability to fairly and fully cover the Bangladeshi government.
Enacted in 2018, the Digital Security Act allows authorities to search, detain, and investigate any person suspected of committing a crime using social media as well as remove and block any information they deem in violation of the act. Punishable offenses include publishing “propaganda or campaign against the liberation war of Bangladesh” and the “national anthem or national flag,” intentionally or knowingly publishing any information “which he knows to be offensive, false or threatening in order to annoy, insult, humiliate or malign a person,” and publishing anything that “hurts the religious values of sentiment.” Sanctions vary from fines to up to 14 years in prison.
Although Islam was arrested under the Official Secrets Act, the Digital Security Act is more frequently used to target journalists. It grants government officials considerable power to investigate those suspected of violating it; they may search newsrooms and workplaces without warrants, seize equipment including computers, video cameras, SD cards, and audio recordings, and detain suspects indefinitely while under investigation.
Several journalists have died while in jail for Digital Security Act violations. Others are thought to have faced mistreatment ranging from medical neglect to torture. The government has made Bangladesh an unsafe place for journalists trying to perform their watchdog function.
When ruling to grant Islam bail, the magistrate in her case said, “It is the duty of journalists to protect the image of society and state.
It is not journalists’ responsibility to protect government — at least, not in a functioning democracy.
The freedom of the press holds multifold significance in a democracy. Press freedom — and freedom of speech more generally — is an essential civil liberty that should be protected and boosted, not hindered. The news media has traditionally served as a rich and vibrant marketplace of ideas, an extension of the public sphere where important dialogue and debate can occur. Free expression and exchange cannot occur where media is not free.
Levitsky and Ziblatt assert in How Democracies Die that a key behavioral sign to watch for in any potential authoritarian leader or regime is the willingness to curtail civil liberties, particularly the media. A fully informed electorate is a prerequisite for a healthy and stable democracy, and it cannot exist without an unrestricted press.
Islam’s case and others demonstrate Bangladesh officials’ pattern of targeting journalists who attempt to hold government leaders accountable. The news media’s place in democracy is to be the near-institutional check on all levels of government, the Bangladeshi government is stifling that. It causes a chilling effect among all news outlets. In the cases of the two largest news outlets in the country, Prothom Alo and The Daily Star, journalists are barred from attending any government press conferences, directly interfering with their ability to report.
As United States Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote in the landmark case New York Times v. U.S.: “The press was to serve the governed, not the governors. The Government’s power to censor the press was abolished so that the press would remain forever free to censure the Government.”
The Bangladeshi government continues to travel down a dark path away from press freedom. With each journalist it arrests, detains, and punishes, it suppresses the work of countless other journalists. It tells them it is dangerous to perform their responsibilities. A government hostile to a free and fair press is a government willing to be hostile to democracy.