The current regime has been in power for 10 years actually without being elected. The Sheikh Hasina-led regime has set its goal to introduce one party system in the country. In 1975, Awami League- which is the ruling party now- introduced one party system which was called Bakshal. Sheikh Mujib, father of Sheikh Hasina, was behind the introduction of Bakshal. After Bakshal system was introduced, Sheikh Mujib declared himself lifelong president of Bangladesh and he banned all political parties except his own Awami League. Only four newspapers were allowed publication- all others were banned. He even took away people’s rights to file writ petition to any court. Bakshal system was abolished with the assassination of Sheikh Mujib in August 1975.
We are facing the same Bakshal like situation under the current regime again. This regime is introducing one party rule system again. There is a virtual ban on the political activities of the opposition parties. There is no freedom of speech. People are losing their rights as citizens. Humanitarian rights have no space in the country.
In this situation some journalists supporting the government have introduced a sycophantic culture in the country. These journalists often indulge in shameless sycophancy and vie with each other to get closer to PM Hasina. Some time back a senior newspaper editor said: “Dear Prime Minister, you have long deserved to get the Nobel Prize. None gets this prize without lobbying well for it. You should start lobbying for this prize as soon as possible.” Many journalists flatter the PM and her government and publish biased reports to win her favour.
However, some media outlets in the country still try to maintain professionalism, without being biased. But, those outlets are struggling under severe pressure for publishing contents critical of the government and ruling party, Amnesty International said in its 2016 annual report. The government warned business houses against giving any advertisement to the Daily Star and Prothom Alo, two largest newspapers of Bangladesh.
Police filed seven suits in seven different districts against the editor of Prothom Alo, the largest Bengali language newspaper in Bangladesh. In the same way, they filed over 35 cases against the Daily Star, the largest circulated English language newspaper of the country.
The government often uses the powerful military intelligence officers to threaten media outlets and force them to avoid publishing news which are critical of the government.
Between 2009 and 2017, during the regime of Sheikh Hasina, 21 journalists were murdered in Bangladesh. Among them, in the cases of 18 murders, including those of journalist couple Sagar and Runi, have not been brought to justice. Even the murderers in the sensational 2012 case of Sagar and Runi were not arrested.
Between 2014 and 2017, at least 600 journalists became victims of harassment and torture. Last year, when the journalists were reporting on the students’ movement demanding safer roads, pro-government groups beat up some of them badly.
In 2013, while amending the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) law, Section 57 was added to it. Human rights activists and journalists for years demanded abolition of the draconian Section 57 which was used to crack down on freedom of expression in the country. Last year, prominent Bangladeshi photojournalist and social activist Shahidul Alam was arrested under Section 57 of the ICT Act for ostensibly “spreading false information and propaganda” against the government.
Last year the government promised that it would abolish Section 57 of the ICT Act and introduce a new digital security act. When the Digital Security Act (DSA) was introduced later, it was found to be a reinforcement of the draconian Section 57 of the ICT Act.
Several provisions of the DSA violate international standards on free expression.
Section 31 of the DSA authorises sentences of up to ten years for publishing information which “ruins communal harmony or creates instability or disorder or disturbs or is about to disturb the law and order situation.” There is no clear definition of what speech or write-up would be considered a violation of the law. It leaves the government with wide scope to prosecute any speech or write-up it does not like.
Section 32 of the DSA imposes sentences up to fourteen years for any breach of the Official Secrets Act. Do you know what ‘Official Secrets’ mean? Anything the government is keeping away from public is counted as an Official Secret. According to this law public have no right to know of this. Often it is the duty of a journalist find out the details of this “secret”. So, a journalist’s job may often be viewed as a breach of Section 32 of the DSA in Bangladesh now.
If any police officer wants to conduct a raid in a newspaper office, Section 43 of the DSA authorizes him to take control of the newspaper’s official server. Police can even confiscate the server, if they want. I hope you all know that Bangladesh police is identified as the most corrupt organisation in the country, an international survey found. Police can even close down a newspaper on their own if they can take control of its official server.
Section 53 of the DSA says, fourteen sections of the Act will be non-bailable. The offences in most sections not being defined clearly the Act has the potential of being widely misused by the corrupt police and legal authorities.
We all agree that every country needs specific laws to check cyber crimes. But, in Bangladesh in the name of checking cyber crimes they are cracking down on the mass media.
Sometime ago Sheikh Hasina said: “I am the authority to give you licence (to launch a news outlet). I can also revoke that licence.”
Her previous information minister recently said to Bangladeshi journalists, “Keep it in your mind that (for the wrong reports) you might be dragged to court and land in jail. Be careful when you publish the reports.”
At least five bloggers, including Avijit Ray, were killed during the regime of Sheikh Hasina. Two killers of blogger Washiqur Rahman Babu was caught during the crime. But, all those killings still remain unsolved. Very interestingly, some of those suspected killers were killed in extrajudicial killings known as cross-fires. Many believe different agencies of the government engineered those killings.
Press freedom is in worst shape in Bangladesh. International Media rights groups work in the interest of the freedom of press in Bangladesh, the best way they can, so that the government will perhaps be forced to ease pressure on the mass media in Bangladesh. People are being victims of serious level of human rights violations across Bangladesh. They do not have any authority or organisation around to turn to for relief or justice.