A total 335 violations of the right to freedom of expression were reported in Bangladesh in 2017, the highest number since 2013.
Almost 70% of the violations were against journalists working at the grassroots level.
The alarming figure was revealed in a report published by ARTICLE 19 on Wednesday to mark World Press Freedom Day which falls on May 3.
Tahmina Rahman MBE, ARTICLE 19’s Regional Director for Bangladesh and South Asia, said the latest research reveals an urgent truth about the environment for expression in Bangladesh and that violations of this crucial human right are more prevalent than ever.
She added that with elections on the horizon, ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about the situation.
According to the report, in 2017 there were 65 prosecutions for criminal defamation, and 76 applications of the restrictive Section 57 of the ICT Act 2006, as well as two arbitrary arrests, and 24 cases of vexatious litigation used to censor and silence.
The same year, Imran H Sarkar and Shonaton Ullash, members of the Gonojagoron Moncho, a well known activist platform, were arrested under Section 57 of the ICT Act for derogatory posts about the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina.
Violence against journalists
The report states that the problem of physical violence against journalists in Bangladesh is still an urgent issue.
There were nearly twice as many physical attacks on journalists and human rights defenders in 2017 as there were the previous year, and attacks on journalists occurring with impunity, with investigations slow, and convictions of perpetrators, rare.
One journalist was killed, 28 suffered serious injury, and a further 75 suffered serious assault in 2017.
Abdul Hakim Shimul, correspondent for the Daily Samakal, was shot by then Mayor of Shahzadpur Municipality, Halimul Haque Miru, who was also district organizational secretary for the ruling Awami League.
Shimul died in hospital. His case is still pending investigation, but the perpetrator is currently in custody.
Almost 70% of violations were against grassroots and local journalists, and women journalists are not adequately protected from gender-specific threats, especially online.
The report further says that local level leaders and activists of the political party in power, emerged as dominant groups, acting against the safety and security of journalists in 2017.
In a number of cases, Awami League’s student wing, Chhatra League, was directly involved in violations.
State actors, responsible for the violation of journalist rights, include law enforcement agencies and, in some cases, public officials themselves.
Tahmina Rahman concluded by pointing out that this spike in attacks on the rights of journalists and activists nationwide and a continuing restrictive legal framework breed fear and self-censorship, and prevents people from exercising their human rights.
The ARTICLE 19 is an international rights body with a focus on enhancing international instruments that protect freedom of expression and the right to information around the world.