The discussion titled 'Press under Digital Surveillance' was organised on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day. Although 3 May is observed as World Press Freedom Day, this discussion was held on Saturday as there the actual day coincided with the Eid holiday.
The discussion was chaired by Mahfuz Anam, President of the Editors Council and Editor of The Daily Star. Referring to various laws, including the Digital Security Act, he said that the implementation of all the laws was obstructing freedom of expression.The question is, why were there so many laws against free expression? What is it that journalists do, for which they have to tie their hands and feet with so many laws?
Mahfuz Anam said that democracy will not flourish in the country by restricting media. He described the Digital Security Act as an impediment to the expansion of the journalism as a profession and said that the law has the potential to penalise journalists in 20 areas of which 14 are not bailable. This law has been enforced against freedom of expression and journalists.
AK Azad, president of the Newspaper Owners' Association of Bangladesh (NOAB), expressed concern over the digital security law. He said the Digital Security Act was putting pressure on the freedom of the press. According to him, the digital reality has opened up a lot of possibilities for the media around the world, but also brought risks for journalists. Surveillance on them has increased.
Manabzamin editor Matiur Rahman Chowdhury said, "We are in a dangerous position. We can't say anything or write anything…It needs a concerted effort to get rid of this fear."
Nurul Kabir, editor of New Age commented that this problem is completely political. He said, “We are under siege. In order to get free, it is necessary to start an effective political and cultural struggle in an organised manner.”
Shyamol Dutta, editor of Bhorer Kagoj, said, "We can write, but the question is whether can write what we want or not." He stressed on the unity of journalists to continue to work freely in the time of digital act.
Former president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalist (BFUJ) Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul highlighted three types of legal complications in journalism. He said there was no law for journalists in the broadcast media. As a result, those who work in television are not legally media workers, but employees of the company. The new laws added up new concerns. Those laws are being designed in such a way that the law controls the media and the misuse of the law makes it even more dangerous. Older laws, such as the Official Secrets Act, are also conveniently used against journalists.
The journalist leader proposed to form a committee to analyse the legal impediments that are curtailing journalism.
Later in the president's speech, Mahfuz Anam assured to take necessary steps by accepting this proposal.
M Abdullah, president of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), said the activities of the leading newspapers and television stations, especially those doing investigative journalism, were being closely monitored. Not only national level journalists, but also journalists of major media outlets at district level are under surveillance. He underscored the torture and murder of journalists and said that there is culture if a journalist is killed or tortured, there will be no trial.
President of the Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ) Kader Gani Chowdhury termed the Digital Security Act as an ‘manifestation of fear' for freedom of speech. He said that it is even considered a crime to speak against the influential people on social media. Whoever is writing anything is being arrested.
Nazrul Islam, president of the Dhaka Reporters' Unity, said the Digital Security Act was enacted in 2018, despite strong opposition from journalists. The government has repeatedly assured that nothing will go wrong. But overall, the law has severely damaged freedom of expression and independent journalism. He said that political divisions among journalists were also impairing the freedom of journalism.
Professor Golam Rahman, editor of Ajker Patrika, said that every government perceived media as their foe. This is a big challenge for Bangladesh. But in order to establish civil rights, freedom of the media must be ensured.
Akhtar Hossain, general secretary of DUJ and some other journalists spoke in the open discussion.
Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman, Inquilab editor AMM Bahauddin, acting editor of Samakal Mozammel Hossain, Kartoa editor Mozammel Haque and others were also present at the discussion meeting conducted by Dewan Hanif Mahmud, general secretary of the editors’ council.