“Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets..”Napoleon Bonaparte
Freedom of Speech is one of the fundamental pillar stones of international human rights and a liberal democracy. There can be no democracy without the expression of different voices in the absence of any censorship, fear, or sanction. The absence of freedom of speech and free media is not just violating the expression of ideas but also the right to access accurate information. A free and fair election cannot be held without well-functioning media organs. Unfortunately, in the contemporary world politics, not many people are entitled to free speech, like the people of Bangladesh.
The democracy of Bangladesh entered a promising period between 1991 and 2001 in terms of liberal democratic development through the adoption of complete adult suffrage, competitive and fair elections, free speech & media, and an independent judiciary. However, the transformation did not solidify liberal democracy. According to V-dem, Bangladesh is categorized as an autocratizing regime, and her liberal democracy index belongs to the bottom 20% relative to other countries. In terms of the World Press Freedom Index in 2022, according to Reporters Without Borders, Bangladesh is the 162nd among 180 countries .
Sheikh Hasina government come to the power in 2009 with the promise of democracy and welfare which was not the case at all. Similar to previous governments, the Hasina government used the mainstream media as a communication tool and prevent the appearance of the opposition. It is important to note that many Bangladeshi people live below the poverty line which prevents access to the internet which increases the importance of broadcasts that are mainly either owned by the state or by the businessmen who are afraid to offend the government . Unfortunately, the abuse of the media is not limited to the presence of the great influence of the government. The pressure continues with lawsuits, online or in person harassment, threats, physical assaults, or even murders. Also, the constitution is amended through presidential decrees several times to enable the government to eliminate these journalists who work against the wishes of the government .
One of these laws is the Communication Technology Act passed in 2006. Bengali Journalists and several international organizations like Reporters Without Borders have been working for the abolishment of this law however, the parliament amended it to become even worse in 2013. With the recent amendment, police gained more rights to intervene in case of fake or defaming news, which resulted in increased police violence toward journalists. In addition, the requirement of a warrant for searching the private property and the right to release on bail were lifted for such cases. Moreover, the sentence increased to a minimum of 7 and maximum of 14 years. Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan are among the many victims of the ICT act. They published information and photography about the police violence during a protest of a group called Hifazat-e Islam. Government authorities declared 16 people killed during the event whereas Adilur Rahman Khan and Nasiruddin Elan prepared a report stating that the police killed 61 people. After the publication of the report, they had been arrested due to spreading fake news and disrupting the public order .
After receiving numerous criticisms, Hasina government replaced the ICT act with the Digital Security Act which was described as “one of the world’s most draconian laws for journalists” by the Reporters Without Borders. According to the Digital Security Act, “Defaming individuals, polluting the human mind, hurting religious sentiments, disrupting the public order, producing negative propaganda against the Liberation War or the Father of the Nation, and secret recording” are recognized as crimes and the sentence can vary from 10 years to 14 years or payments as 2-5 million Taka. Through the application of The Digital Security Act, 400 citizens including over 70 journalists had to stand trial .
Mushtaq Ahmet was one of them and he was imprisoned for criticizing the way Hasina government handled the Covid-19 crisis and corruption. Even though the case was not finalized, Mushtaq Ahmet was kept in jail for a year, and he passed in 2021 at the age of 53 in jail .
Another worrying case belongs to a 15-year-old who posted criticism about the government on Facebook and was detained in a juvenile detention center. Only when international organizations such as UNICEF of United Nations demanded the release of the child, he was released with many others who were kept there due to insignificant crimes .
Another victim of the Digital Security Act is a cartoonist called Ahmed Kabir Kishore. He was arrested because of the claims that he was creating chaos in the society by criticizing the government during the pandemic and being disrespectful towards the father of the nation and the liberation war. The lawyer of the Kishore stated that he was tortured in detention, beaten and his head was slammed by the police .
Hasina government is spreading fear all over the media by censoring them, silencing them, sentencing them and unfortunately provoke radical followers by polarizing attitudes and language to participate in the incidents which result in physically hurting them .
On the 13th of February 2022, a group of nearly 100 people who support the government came to the headquarters of a newspaper called Dainik Somoyer Narayanganj smashing the cameras and shootings to prevent identification. The group threatened the editor saying they will kill him and burn down the building if the newspaper does not apologize for publishing an article about a police investigation. After the event, police caught the perpetrators, but they were released the next day .
To conclude, the media under the Hasina government produces propaganda for the government rather than producing legitimate news due to the state own channels or economic concerns of the private media sector. Also, journalists or citizens were highly pressured about any criticism of the government. The absence of any toleration can be illustrated by the sentencing of a 15-year-old due to a Facebook post. The renewed law called Digital Security Act enabled the government to limit and censor the press more easily through detentions or police force. Bangladeshi society is highly polarized, and politicians are benefiting from this existing polarization to suppress each other even further through the violence of radical party supporters towards opposing journalists or newspapers.
Bangladesh defines herself as a democracy however, the freedom of speech and democracy cannot exist separately. The Hasina government should revise their agenda on media and free speech in the favor of liberalism, mediation, and toleration. Otherwise, Bangladesh will continue to be an electoral autocratic regime in which people are not allowed to have opinions.
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