Govt insists it supports press freedom, but international community unconvinced
Government officials continue to insist that the country supports press freedom, ignoring long-standing calls from international rights organizations to scrap the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) as it infringes the right to freedom of expression.
According to BSS, State Minister for Cultural Affairs KM Khalid on Saturday said the government was determined to uphold the freedom of the press.
A day earlier, Fisheries and Livestock Minister SM Rezaul Karim championed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s efforts to develop the media in the country.
On the other hand, rights activists and organizations have been critical of the DSA since it came into force in 2018. The Act contains several provisions that are vague and open to interpretation, allowing for it to be abused to shut down journalists and other dissenting voices, they say.
Journalists the main target of DSA
According to UK-based rights organization ARTICLE 19, at least 198 DSA cases were filed against 451 people in 2020. Among them, 75 journalists were charged in 41 cases, and 32 were arrested.
As recently as June 9, a former Awami League lawmaker in Pabna sued a local journalist under the Digital Security Act (DSA) over a news report. Khandaker Azizul Haque Arzu, the former Pabna-2 MP, filed the case against Shoikat Afroz Asad, a local correspondent for Somoy TV, the Daily Bangladesh Pratidin and online portal bdnews24.com.
Local journalists' bodies expressed outrage over the incident, alleging that the former lawmaker was “trying to stop news from coming out through illegal means.”
On August 6, New York-based independent media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged the authorities in Bangladesh to immediately cease harassing two Rohingya journalists over their reports on Rohingya refugees.
The two journalists in question are brothers and colleagues Sayful Arkane, a reporter, and Mohammad Aziz Arkane, a camera operator, CPJ mentioned in a statement. The brothers cover Rohingya refugees for the YouTube channel of Rohingya news website The Arakan Times.
Quoting Aziz Arkane, the CPJ said the Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) ordered police to arrest him after he participated in a meeting between Rohingya refugees, the UN officials and officials with the RRRC.
Aziz told the CPJ that the officers referenced videos he and his brother had produced for The Arakan Times but did not name specific reports.
Experts: End clampdown on freedom of speech
During a discussion arranged by the UK-based rights body Amnesty International in late July, rights experts urged Bangladesh to end the crackdown on people’s right to freedom of expression online.
Speakers at the event said that more than 2,000 people had been in prison since the DSA came into being in 2018. As of July, 433 people had been arrested under the Act, and many of them were imprisoned for publishing false and offensive publications.
The discussants recommended that the government immediately repeal the law or amend it if it wanted to gain the trust of the international community.
Irene Khan, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of freedom of opinion and expression, alleged that writers, journalists and photojournalists had been the targets of this law.
“The DSA is weakening Bangladesh's democratic culture and democracy. The implementation of this law is abusive,” she observed.
Agnes Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, termed the law “draconian,” and said that it was responsible for shrinking the country’s vibrant civic space.
She recalled the commitments made by Bangladesh to join the UNHRC. “This is not a PR exercise,” she added.
Cartoonist and human rights activist Ahmed Kabir Kishore in a recorded speech alleged that he was brutally tortured while in custody under a DSA case.
“I was severely injured, and after my release I'm surviving now with my ear and eye problems, and treatment. Every crime has a punishment according to the law. We want it [law] to be enforced according to the crime. But no one is safe when it’s abused,” Kishore said.