Free press or freedom of expression has been the basis of upholding human rights worldwide

Journalism has always had bad luck in Bangladesh. The right to speak and freedom of expression had been the basis of the aspirations for democracy and independence for which the liberation war and the struggles that preceded it were fought. And the soul of this had been complete freedom for journalism.

Free press or freedom of expression has been the basis of upholding human rights worldwide. This is not just a cliché. Let’s go back to 3 February 1956 and see what Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had said in the National Assembly about drawing up the constitution.

Addressing the Speaker, Bangabandhu had said, “You all say that freedom of speech means press freedom. But are you aware that the editors are called and told – you cannot print this, you cannot print that. Sir, they cannot even write the truth and I can prove that…. The orders come from the secretariat. An inspector goes on behalf of the government and says, you cannot write about a certain specific issue.”

He then gave a clear proposal of what should be included in the constitution. He said, “It must be clearly written that there will be press freedom. They will be able to write as they please and they will be able to mobilise public opinion.”

That is why the passionate pledge for freedom to practice journalism within the state parameters is an integral factor in the emergence of Bangladesh. Yet the fact remains that ever since independence down till today, the state has steadily been constricting the scope of journalism. After BKSAL was established in 1975, the publication of most newspapers was halted. In the same year, after the brutal assassination of Bangabandhu and his family on 15 August, military rule was established and continued for one and a half decades.

Journalists have been harassed in all sorts of ways, tortured and even killed. Several newspapers and television channels have been shut down. The successive propensity for such behaviour has been the same

Under military rule where there is no democracy, how can the question of free press eve arise! Towards the end of the rule of the autocrat Ershad, certain newspapers did not spare him with their sharp fangs. Without bothering to show any reason, he used a repressive law to cancel the registration of such newspapers.

Journalists had actively taken part in the movement to topple the Ershad government. During the last days of the anti-government movement, journalists expressed their solidarity with the movement and stopped publication. Within a very short time after his fall, the interim government of Shahabuddin Ahmed brought a wave of relief. He listened to the demands of the journalists and revoked that repressive law.

In a sense, that was the start of the practice of press freedom in Bangladesh. We had thought that along with the restoration of democracy, fair winds blew over journalism too. But anything is possible in a country where laws can be enacted to save the killers of a leader and head of state like Bangabandhu. In the 33 years of our restored democracy, the state’s treatment of the press has been reprehensible.

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Journalists have been harassed in all sorts of ways, tortured and even killed. Several newspapers and television channels have been shut down. The successive propensity for such behaviour has been the same. The victims of such oppression or prohibitions have either placed the governments in the face of criticism through their journalism or the government perceives them to be of the opposition camp.

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BNP (Bangladesh Nationalist Party) had shut down the immensely popular Ekushey Television, Awami League shut down the newspaper Amar Desh, known to be anti-government. In this respect, there is a close proximity in mindset between the Awami League and BNP governments.

That was about shutting down news outlets. Then again, party activists are used to launch attacks and lodge cases in order to stringently control investigative journalism and criticism of the government. The enactment and implementation of one repressive law after the other has created an intensely alarming environment. There have been no qualms in using the law to harass and abuse journalists and the news media.

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In May 2021 in this independent country, the Officials Secrets Act which had been promulgated during the colonial rule to punish the subjects of the colony, was applied against Prothom Alo’s journalist Rozina Islam. And in order to suppress journalism, the most menacing Digital Security Act was enacted during the rule of the present government. Then there are the digital, social media and OTT regulations, the data protection law and the news media workers act in the pipeline. The media and human rights activists have already expressed their apprehensions concerning the repressive sections of these laws.

Of the 20 sections of the Digital Security Act, 14 are non-bailable. The punishment includes one year's, four years', seven years' and even life sentences. The Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) collected information on 1,295 cases from October 2018 till March 2023 and this indicates that after politicians of the opposition, this law has been used the most against journalists. Journalists have been arrested under several non-bailable sections of this law, and sent to jail. Various ploys are employed to make the stay behind bars for an uncertain and lengthy period in order to teach them a lesson. Writer Mushtaq Ahmed died in prison. Towards the end of March this year, this law was used to severely harass Prothom Alo’s editor Matiur Rahman and the newspaper’s Savar correspondent Samsuzzaman over a graphic card used in social media.

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As soon as this law was passed in 2018, the Bangladesh Editors Council as well as various journalists and human rights organisations raised questions about the justification of this law and demanded the abolition and amendment of several sections of the act. The law minister at various times pledged to amend the law, but it has been five years since the law was passed and the government is nearing the end of its tenure, yet he has not kept his word. He simply repeated the old pledge again not too long ago.

The reason why the law minister made this commitment was because of certain recommendations sent by United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). They recommended that two sections of the act be revoked and another eight be amended. They saw three dangers in these sections: 1. Defining freedom of expression by legitimate media as an offence with provision for stern punishment; 2. Bestowing the digital security agency with extensive powers; and 3. Lengthy incarceration before the trial under the non-bailable clause.

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It is a fact that this law is being frequently used to harass and scare journalists. But that is not all. The sections of this act that have been written in such a manner that it has constricted and gagged journalism itself. There are certain sections in this law that considers it an offence to use the mobile phone to take pictures of information in documents. The digital security agency has even been given the authority to enter any news media office on grounds of suspicion and confiscate the server equipment. In this day and age this simply means a lengthy closure of that media outlet’s publication. The truth is that it is impossible to practice journalism in the true sense of the word with this law in place. That is why many human rights organisations want its total abolition.

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In 2022, journalist leader Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul, speaking about media-related laws, said, “Journalism in Bangladesh is like releasing a lot of crocodiles in a pond and saying, now swim from one end to the other of the crocodile-infested pond.” His analogy couldn't have been more accurate.

Our constitution reflects the words spoken that day by Bangabandhu in the National Assembly. Article 31 (1) (Kha) of the constitution states that freedom of the press is guaranteed. In Bangla, the term denotes a bit more than ‘freedom of the press’, it is about the space of the press. This writer consulted the late national professor Anisuzzaman, who was one of main translators of the constitution into Bangla. The profressor explained that this space for the press encompassed the time from when the news was collected, collated and then disseminated.

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* Sajjad Sharif is Prothom Alo’s executive editor and a poet

** The op-ed was originally published in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for English edition by Ayesha Kabir