Alarming trend of declining press freedom across South Asia threatens to continue
With an ominous score of 62, 100 being the least free, press freedom in Bangladesh has been categorized as “partially free” by Freedom House, the US based NGO frequently cited by political scientists and journalists. As the widely criticized Digital Security Bill 2018 gets passed into law at the end of September, Bangladesh continues to be part of the trend of declining press freedom in Southeast Asia.
“Unfortunately it is true that situation of press freedom in the whole of South Asia is deteriorating,” said journalist and author Altaf Parvez. “Two Reuters journalists have been sentenced to imprisonment recently and Suu Kyi made comments supporting the judgment. On top of that, new laws are underway to further control freedom of expression,” he said.
Parvez, who has written extensively on South Asian politics - including books on the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka (Sri Lanker Tamil Eelam - Dokkhin Asiyay ‘Jati Rashtro’ er Shingkot), water dispute between Bangladesh and India (Bangladesh-Bharot Panijuddho) - says that Myanmar is in the process of amending the existing laws that grant and protect right for peaceful assembly. “The process of amending these laws are ongoing and these will be changed in a manner so that no one will dare to assemble for any socio-economic causes. The country’s position has dropped in the World Press Freedom Index even after it became a democracy,” Parvez said.
Bangladesh part of the trend
Bangladesh’s position in the index has remained the same as last year, with observations and worries expressed about the Digital Security Act. World Press Freedom Index, an annual publication by the Paris-based international organization ‘Reporters Without Borders’, noted that even though there is pluralism, “Media self-censorship is growing as a result of the endemic violence against journalists and media outlets, and the almost systematic impunity enjoyed by those responsible.”
In 2017, at least 25 journalists and several hundred bloggers and Facebook users were prosecuted under the Information and Communication Technology Act, which penalizes online content that is regarded as defamatory or blasphemous, Reporters Without Borders observed. “Instead of amending this law, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government proposed a new digital security law in early 2018 with vaguely-worded provisions that would allow the authorities to clamp down even more on dissent,” the overview on Bangladesh in the 2018 World Press Freedom Index read.
Among the most prominent criticisms of the new Act, the Editors’ Council’s clear condemnation has attracted most attention within Bangladesh, with the Prime Minister’s advisor and one of the most influential people within the ruling party Sajeeb Wazed hotly challenging the integrity the Council’s statement.
The Editors’ Council, comprising of chief editors of all leading newspapers, published a white paper on the matter titled ‘Why we oppose the Digital Security Act’, where it stated that the law will enable exercising undue control and surveillance on newspapers and citizens. The paper sharply criticized the Act saying that it will give the police “unlimited power” to enter houses or offices and seize computers and other electronic devices. The Council also pointed out the vague wording in the Act as problematic. “The Digital Security Act will create an atmosphere of such terror and fear that journalism, especially investigative journalism, will become essentially impossible,” the Editors’ Council said.
Prominent rights organization Human Rights Watch issued statement saying the Act “strikes a blow to freedom of speech in the country.” “With at least five provisions criminalizing vaguely defined types of speech, the law is a license for wide-ranging suppression of critical voices,” said Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch.
The issue of suppressing dissenting opinions came to the forefront recently in Bangladesh when the internationally acclaimed photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested on August 5 following his interview with Al Jazeera news channel during the student-led road safety protests. The famed photographer and educator told Al Jazeera, hours before his arrest, that the road safety protests were driven by “larger” factors than road safety, and went on to say that the current government was “unelected” and it is clinging on to power by “brute force”.
A grim situation in South Asia
Similar incidents have been taking place across South Asia, including a recent summoning of Pakistan’s journalist Cyril Almeida, who was summoned by the Lahore High Court over an interview he conducted of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Almeida is an assistant editor at Pakistani daily newspaper Dawn. “The fact of the matter is that the military intelligence organization there (Pakistan) has been exerting pressure on Dawn and few other newspapers. There is also the omnipresent threat of religious extremists on the people who express opinions freely. Just last year five journalists were killed (in Pakistan). It is very difficult to properly cover the struggles of the Baluch people there,” Altaf Parvez said.
The situation is also far from ideal in the ‘largest democracy in the world’, India. “The freedom of speech is under physical assault in India as well. Radicals are being labeled as ‘urban Naxalites’. We have recently seen a mass arrest of prominent dissident poets, journalists, writers - which has been legitimized by labelling them as ‘Maoists’,” said Parvez.
India is ranked 138 in the World Press Freedom Index, one position above Pakistan and eight higher than Bangladesh, which is ranked at 146. Despite presence of progressive media like Scroll.in and The Wire, India has seen gruesome attacks being carried out against activists and journalists. “Everyone knows about the murder of Gauri Lankesh in 2017 by the ruling Hindu supremacist power. The renowned journalist was murdered right in front of her own house. Well known young activist Umar Khalid also narrowly survived an attack by Hindu supremacists, and it took place in the country’s capital no less,” Altaf Parvez said.
Despite the end of a long armed conflict within the country, Sri Lanka has not dealt with the violence meted out on journalists during the country’s turbulent and relatively recent past. “There hasn’t been any trial for the killing of journalists by both sides during the war against the Tamil,” Parvez said. “Other than Nepal, freedom of expression in the South Asian countries are not looking better compared to the past. I have to say it’s worse,” he concluded.