Self-censorship by media outlets is on the rise in Bangladesh due to persistent acts of violence against those who criticize the constitution or Islam, an international press freedom organization warned on Wednesday. Releasing its 2018 World Press Freedom Index - an annual review of 180 countries and their relationship with the media - Reporters Without Borders (RWB) raised concerns over the “endemic violence” against journalists and media outlets and the “systematic impunity” enjoyed by those responsible. “In Bangladesh, it is a bad idea to criticize the constitution or Islam, although the country is officially secular,” the RWB report said. Bangladesh failed to improve its position in the index during 2017 and remains in 146th place, behind neighbouring India - who dropped two places to 138th - and Pakistan, who remain in 139th position. Norway and Sweden held on to the top two places in the list, while the reclusive state of North Korea continues to lie in last position. “Journalists and bloggers (in Bangladesh) who resist censorship or self-censorship on these subjects risk life imprisonment or the death penalty, while Islamist militants often issue online calls for the murder of outspoken secularist bloggers and writers,” RWB said. “Media self-censorship is also growing in the country as a result of the endemic violence against journalists and media outlets.” The RWB report said at least 25 journalists and several hundred bloggers and Facebook users were prosecuted in Bangladesh in 2017 under the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, which penalizes online content that is regarded as defamatory or blasphemous. The report criticised the Bangladesh government for proposing a new digital security law early this year with “vaguely-worded provisions” which, it warns, would allow the authorities concerned to clamp down even more on dissent.
Although the government enacted the ICT Act in 2006 in a bid to check cyber crimes, it has drawn a huge backlash after influential quarters, particularly those linked with the ruling Awami League, were found abusing Section 57 of the statute to harass journalists and rights activists. Section 57 classes as non-bailable offences any post, image, or video in an electronic format that causes a deterioration in law and order, or which prejudices the image of the state or person, or hurts religious beliefs. The punishment for a successful conviction ranges from seven to 14 years in prison, and a fine of up to Tk1 crore. As of August 2017, the Dhaka Tribune found that at least 19 journalists had been sued under the act by leaders, lawmakers and activists of the ruling party, and by other influential people in the 11 years since the act became law. There has also been a sharp rise in the number of cases being brought each year; according to prosecution sources, three cases were filed in 2013 under the ICT Act, 33 in 2014, 152 in 2015 and 233 in 2016. The study revealed that over a span of just six months last year, a total of 391 cases were lodged under this act, of which nearly 60% were filed under Section 57. Around 313 out of 785 people accused in the cases were arrested.
In response to the heavy criticism of the ICT act, the cabinet in January this year approved the draft of Digital Security Act 2018 while keeping the provision for jail terms and fines. If the draft is passed in parliament, sections 54, 55, 56, 57 and 66 of the ICT Act will be repealed. However, even if the government repeals the controversial provisions from the ICT Act, Section 19 of the new legislation will still enable law enforcers to conduct searches, arrest and confiscate anyone’s property without a warrant, as per the existing Section 57. Criticism has also been directed at Section 32 of the new act. This allows 14-year jail terms and a maximum fine of Tk20 lakh for those caught secretly recording information inside government, semi-government or autonomous organization’s offices. Reacting to the Cabinet approval, Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul, president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, said: “If any section of the [proposed] act turns out to be an impediment to the execution of the professional work of journalists, we are against it.”