Expressing concern over the prevailing lack of freedom of press and speech in the country, the United States on Friday said there were significant limitations on freedom of speech in 2017 as some journalists had to self-censor their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.
In its annual Congressional-mandated Human Rights Report for 2017, the State Department also expressed concern over the deteriorating human rights condition in Bangladesh.
“The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes failed to respect this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Some journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal,” the report said.
Noting that the constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition, the report said punishment for sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment.
In 2016 several high-profile individuals were charged with sedition, including BNP Chairperson Khaleda Zia, television personality Mahmudur Rahman Manna, and reporter Kanok Sarwar. The government did not proceed with the prosecutions of Manna and Sarwar.
The State Department said independent journalists alleged that intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising, and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well.
“Privately owned newspapers usually enjoyed the freedom to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem, however. The government used advertising as a weapon to control the media by withholding advertising spending,” it said.
Alleging that the government penalized media that criticized the government, the report said on multiple occasions, government officials threatened privately owned television channels not to broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements.
“Daily newspapers Prothom Alo and Daily Star were denied access to prime ministerial events because they published reports critical of the government and prime minister, according to observers,” it said.
“The government also intervened to suppress reports deemed damaging to the ruling party. On September 22, the Burma news portal mizzima.com published a report by Indian journalist Subir Bhaumik under the headline “Bangladesh’s Hasina Survives another Attempt on Her Life.” On September 23, the local television stations Jamuna TV and DBC News broadcast the report as breaking news but were pressured to pull it off the air,” it said
According to the State Department, violent attacks against religious minority communities continued, apparently motivated by transnational violent extremism as well as economic and political reasons.
For example, on November 11, media reports indicated that approximately 30 Hindu houses were vandalized and burned in Rangpur by local Muslims in response to a rumored Facebook post demeaning Islam, it said.
NGOs reported that national origin, racial, and ethnic minorities faced discrimination. For example, some Dalits (lowest-caste Hindus) had restricted access to land, adequate housing, education, and employment, it added.
In its report, the State Department said the most significant human rights issues for Bangladesh in 2017 included extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary or unlawful detentions, and forced disappearances by government security forces, and restrictions on civil liberties.
Freedom of speech, press, and the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), a lack of freedom to participate in the political process, corruption, violence and discrimination based on gender, religious affiliation, caste, tribe, including indigenous persons, and sexual orientation and gender identity also persisted and, in part, due to a lack of accountability. Trafficking in persons remained a serious problem, as did restrictions on worker’s rights and the worst forms of child labor.
“There were reports of widespread impunity for security force abuses. The government took limited measures to investigate and prosecute cases of abuse and killing by security forces. Public distrust of police and security services deterred many from approaching government forces for assistance or to report criminal incidents,” the report said.
This article was first published on banglatribune.com