According to Reporters Without Borders, out of 180 countries Bangladesh ranked 162nd in the global press freedom index in 2022 and that is the lowest among all South Asian countries except Myanmar. In 2021, Bangladesh’s position was 152 but 121 in 2009 in which year the Right to Information Act was enacted.

In 2022, the US based Freedom House rated Bangladesh as partly free in respect of civil liberties and political rights. There is also widespread criticism for the closure of several TV channels, newspapers and online portals since 2009.

As per the data of UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists, a total of 25 journalists were brutally killed in Bangladesh from 2004 to 13 April 2022. At the same time, more than 1,200 journalists have been killed throughout the world between 2006 and 2020.

Moreover, in 2021, Bangladesh ranked 11th on Community to Protect Journalist’s (CPJ) global impunity index which tracks countries where murders of journalists escape justice. Simultaneously, self-censorship also has enormously deteriorated the freedom of press.

Data shows that Bangladesh has 45 TV channels, 28 FM and community radio stations, 1,248 daily newspapers, along with over 100 online news portals. The landscape of Bangladeshi media portrays a self-contradictory image because the trends of media freedom are shrinking alarmingly despite the increase in the number of media in the past two decades.

The ownership of most print and electronic media houses here are corporatized and linked with dominating business houses and politicians, leading to serve their business interests and vested political agenda.

Free press enable Bangladesh in the materialization of the three main principles of equality, human dignity, and social justice as enshrined in the proclamation of independence of 10 April 1971 but the government treats media as villains if they go against it but embraces positive news with complacency.

Undoubtedly, the galvanization of press freedom might be a harbinger in attaining the 1972 constitutional commitment of democracy, egalitarian and exploitation free socialist society with rule of law, human rights, freedom, equality, and justice for all citizens reflecting the spirit of liberation war.

Under the black law, about 200 journalists have been implicated in the country between January 2020 to February 2022

However, like many other countries, the journalist community and other stakeholders in Bangladesh observe the World Press Freedom Day on May 3 as a mark of respect to press freedom, reminding the government on the status and trends of journalism, threats on its freedom, and professional ethics.

‘Journalism is under Digital Siege’ is the theme of the World Press Freedom Day in 2022. The United Nations proclaimed the World Press Freedom Day in 1993 and the day also commemorates valiant journalists who sacrificed their lives, sustained injuries, and embraced prison life in the pursuit of press freedom.

In Article 39(2) of the Bangladesh Constitution of 1972, there is a provision for the indoctrination of free press and reasonable restrictions in the plea of state security, friendly relation with other states, public order, decency or morality, contempt of court, defamation, and incitement to an offence.

There are over 50 laws in the country to regulate the print, electronic, online, and social media in the country. The hurting truth is most laws impede freedom than its indulgence. The Digital Security Act, 2018 is the worst in restricting free press and freedom of people in their right to expression in social media as the draconian law is weoponised to muzzle dissent under sections 21, 25, 29, 31, and 32.

Under the black law, about 200 journalists have been implicated in the country between January 2020 to February 2022. The country’s commitment under the UDHR, ICCPR, ICESCR, and other international legal instruments is in question with the weakening trends of the freedom of expression in all platforms.

In fact, the idea of press freedom is not absolute, rather a relative issue all over the world. With the touch of technology, fake news, disinformation, and false propaganda for and against the government create controversy. So, there is no denying the need to prioritise the issues of national interest and state security over the institutional and personal freedoms including free press.

Hence, a delicate balance between the interests of the government and freedom of the press is vital, remembering that the freedom of the press without reasonable restrictions is like a vehicle without a brake. But with the pace of development of a country like Bangladesh, the government should venture to encourage the trends of press freedom rather than adamantly restricting it through various modes of surveillance.

* Emdadul Haque is an independent human rights researcher and freelance contributor based in Dhaka. Reach out at [email protected] and on Twitter @emdadlaw

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