Press freedom: How threatened is it?

The news media had grown steadily in Bangladesh since the independence of the country. However, since the outset of the democratic era after 1990, the structure of Bangladesh’s news media, the content, its use and ownership all underwent various transformations. The emergence of new technology as well as the inevitable influence of globalisation, all had an impact on the media of this country too.

While news media may have developed in leaps and bounds, the practice of professional and investigative journalism has not been as strong as it could have been, due to various challenges including the influence of a controlled market and corporate capital, political culture and various legal and policy matters of the state. The legal and policy frameworks of the state have in particular been an obstacle to the media and investigative journalism at present times.

The impending threat that these laws can at any time be wielded against any journalist, is a large challenge to journalism.  There are particularly many instances of various sections of the Special Powers Act 1974, the Officials Secrets Act 1923, and the Penal Code 1860 being used against investigative journalists. These sections of the law give scope to file cases pertaining to defamation, false news, violating state secrecy or harm to any individual, institution or state.

There are at least nine laws presently being used against the media, the latest of which was the Digital Security Act, now with changes in certain clauses and named as the Cyber Security Act. It remains a threat to the media, journalism and investigative journalism.

According to Human Rights Watch, till April 2018 the police had registered 1,300 cases under the previous ICT Act, mostly under the controversial Section 57. After that, till 31 January 2023, over 7000 cases were filed under the Digital Security Act 2018 (Source: Law minister Anisul Huq in parliament on 5 June 2023). That means on average 4.5 cases were filed under this law every day.

Bangladesh is among the riskiest states for journalism. From 1992 at least 34 journalists were killed for professional reasons.

The Digital Security Act was then abolished and the Cyber Security Act was enacted in its stead, with a few reduced sentences and tweaks here and there, though basically retaining most of the repressive sections of the two old laws, sometimes with changes in the wording. In the case of ‘offences’ such as defamation, the fine has been increased manifold instead of prison sentence, and some non-bailable sections have been made bailable.

However, from various human rights organisations it has been learnt that at least 6 sections of the new law like sections 17, 19, 27, 30 and 33, have been kept non-bailable. So the law that was created ostensibly to ensure security in the cyber space, is being used more as a threat to constitutionally upheld right to freedom of speech and freedom of expression, and particularly against journalism and investigative journalists.

With the steadily increasing attacks, threats and cases against the media, the right to freedom of the press and expression of views, that is, freedom of speech, has been infringed upon, as a result of which there has been an increase of self censorship in the media houses. While the government has no official prohibition, many media houses refrain from publishing news that may go against the government, political party or corporate establishments, or publish these in carefully clipped versions.

The US Human Rights Report of 2022 claims that Bangladesh’s investigative journalists often allege that their management authorities or their editors often ‘kill’ their investigative reports in fear of ‘pressure’.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Bangladesh is among the riskiest states for journalism. From 1992 at least 34 journalists were killed for professional reasons. Due to limitations in freely publishing news, limited freedom of speech, in cases deemed to be an offence, Bangladesh has steadily declined in the various indexes for the media, freedom of expression and human rights.

For example, in the World Press Freedom 2023 report of Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Bangladesh dropped to 163 in rank about 180 countries, the lowest in South Asia. In the five categories regarding the state of media in the RSF report -- very serious, difficult, problematic, satisfactory and good – Bangladesh is in the ‘very serious’ category.

Also Read

Most of the laws in Bangladesh that hinder journalism and freedom of expression, are influenced by the Penal Code of 1860. In the interpretation of Section 124 of this Penal Code, it is said that whoever by spoken or written words, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise, brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards the lawful government can be accused of committing sedition. The punishment prescribed varies from imprisonment up to three years to life imprisonment, with fine or without it. In other words, nothing can be said against the government.

This law was promulgated 163 years ago during the British colonial rule. Almost all countries of the British Commonwealth have long abolished this law. India’s Supreme Court and Pakistan’s Lahore High Court have declared this law void, terming it as unconstitutional. In this region, only Bangladesh rigorously  uses this law or laws influenced by it. These century-old laws term constitutionally recognized freedom of speech as an offence, make it difficult for the publication of information and news, and even view journalism as an offence.

That is why, in order to free investigative journalism and freedom of speech, it is essential to immediately restructure all relevant laws including the Penal Code 1860, particularly the Cyber Security Act and the draft mass media employees act, and enact or reenact these in relevance with the today’s world.

Also, instead of enacting media related policies and regulations (broadcast policy, online media policy, newspaper policy and film policy) separately, there needs to be a common policy for the media that ensures that autonomy and actual independence of the media and also plays an effective role in promoting excellence in media. After all, the alternative to freedom of speech, expression and thought can only be its full independence. A developed and prosperous state can never be established by suppressing dissenting views.

* Zafar Sadiq is a development and media activist and can be contacted at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

Also Read