Free press: How far back are we going to slide?

EditorialProthom Alo illustration

The news of Bangladesh sliding two notches down in the World Press Freedom Index from last year is indeed very concerning. In context of the freedom index going downhill for the last couple of years, we were expecting the index to go up this time. Even if that doesn’t happen, at least it wouldn’t slide any further, we had hoped. But the exact opposite happened.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) publishes World Press Freedom Index on 3 May every year, marking the World Press Freedom Day. With a score of 27.64, Bangladesh stands at 165 among 180 countries in the index from 2024. However, Bangladesh was 163rd with the score of 35.31 in the index from 2023. Back in 2022, Bangladesh experienced a huge demotion in the press freedom index. Bangladesh had slid ten notches compared to the previous year.

The main reason for Bangladesh’s demotion in the press freedom index is the Digital Security Act (DSA). According to RSF, Bangladesh’s DSA is one of the toughest laws against journalists in the world. In the face of protests from stakeholders of the media, the government scrapped the law last year and made a new law called the Cyber ​​Security Act (CSA). Though bailable sections have been increased in the new law, characteristically there are no differences between the two.

According to data from the Ain o Salish Kendra, as many as 290 journalists have fallen victim to repression and harassment in 2023. A total of 28 journalists have been attacked and 22 have faced obstruction while performing professional duties. In the last five years, cases have been filed against 401 journalists under the Digital Security Act. While the act was annulled in September last year, the cases filed against journalists under this act, though 98 per cent of them are baseless and motivated, are still ongoing.

Alongside legal barriers, the incident of obstructing journalists’ entry to government offices has also shrunken the scope of collecting information. Prothom Alo reports that journalists are facing obstacles in collecting information from government, semi-government, autonomous offices and even institutions open to the public. The latest instance for this is the Bangladesh Bank. Overall, an atmosphere of fear is prevalent in the Bangladeshi media.

When it comes to the question of press freedom, policy makers start counting the number of newspapers, news portals and television channels there are in the country. But they should remember that the freedom of press cannot be measured by the number of media outlets. Neither is our position is good in the index of democracy, civil rights, and freedom of speech, that are associated with press freedom. Everyone is moving forward, whereas we are falling behind in almost every index.

Government policy makers make a racket whenever there’s a negative report in any survey of a domestic or international organisation. They also raise questions about its accuracy. There was no exception in the case of RSF report either. If there’s a mistake in RSF’s index, the government should point it out with supporting data and information. There is no scope of spreading misinformation and disinformation indiscriminately.

Plus, you don’t need the RSF index to prove that the freedom of the press in Bangladesh is declining successively. Stakeholders of the media here are witnessing it in their own experience. If the government does not want to take the media in Bangladesh on the same level as North Korea, Myanmar and Syria, hopefully they will takes immediate steps to remove the legal, infrastructural and environmental barriers. In addition to that we demand to stop harassment of the journalists by withdrawing the cases filed under the now-annulled Digital Security Act.

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