By Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
In Bangladesh, unfortunately, journalism is becoming increasingly risky while a section of the state machinery has started seeing journalists as criminals and journalism as crime. Working journalists in Bangladesh are already in a state of extreme fear following introduction of ‘Digital Security Act’ which has been used as a key tool of suffocating freedom of expression and freedom of press, while now there is newer concern as the government is set to promulgate newer laws – even amending the Press Council Act – which surely will make the profession of journalism – the most difficult task in the world.
Existing ‘Digital Security Act’ (DSA) has already turned into a nightmare to journalists, which is being used by anyone who wants to suffocate freedom of press and intimidate journalists. The DSA was preceded by the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) ACT 2006, which was later amended in 2013. Since 2014, the ICT Act has come under harsh criticism as it was widely used to arrest and prosecute individuals, particularly journalists for expressing their views.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), Bangladesh police filed nearly 1,300 charges from 2013 to April 2018 under the ICT Act. Most of these cases were filed under Section 57 of the act, which authorizes the prosecution of anyone who “publishes or transmits … in electronic form any material” deemed “fake and obscene”, defamatory, or otherwise likely to “deprave or corrupt” its audience. It also allows for prosecutions stemming from any online material that may cause “law and order” to “deteriorate”; “prejudice the image of the State or [a] person; or “hurt religious belief.” In 2018, the government finally decided to repeal five controversial sections of the ICT Act, including the offending Section 57. But this repeal didn’t result in a freer environment because the DSA essentially incorporated these sections with even harsher penalties.
The DSA now includes life imprisonment for offenders, and uses terms and provisions which are excessively broad and open to interpretation. Section 25 of the Act criminalizes “spreading information with an intention to affect the image or reputation of the country or to spread confusion”.
While the DSA targets critical voices on social media and other digital platforms, mainstream media and journalists are not safe from the Act. The Centre for Governance Studies (CHS) tracked a total of 890 charges under DSA from January 2020 to March 3, 2022, and found that 8.6 percent were brought against mainstream journalists. In recent times, various individuals and even terror-patrons have started using DSA as a weapon of silencing journalists.
The Digital Security Act (DSA) was enacted in 2018 purportedly replacing the controversial Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006 (as amended in 2013). This new law has however shown a more restrictive approach towards freedom of expression in its wordings and application than the former one. This excessive interference with free expression has encouraged demands from people of many walks for the abolishment of the DSA.
In brief, the only goal of the Digital Security Act is to criminalize journalism and create a fearsome atmosphere where journalists either should change their profession or take mental preparation for being harassed and even imprisoned almost on a regular basis for the “crime” of being a journalist.
Controlling the media – and demonizing journalists who don’t toe the “correct” line – is nothing new. It has been adopted by rulers across the world throughout history – and not just by dictators. Bangladesh is just one supposedly democratic country, where the law is coming dangerously close to making journalism a crime.
The Government of Bangladesh is currently planning to introduce yet another new set of laws under the banner of the “Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT Platforms”, a draft of which was published in February 2022.
A total of 45 international organizations have called on the government to withdraw it amid concerns over freedom of expression.
This is just the latest step in Bangladesh’s long road towards curtailing freedom of speech, adding to the already existing, draconian 2018 Digital Security Act.
These digital security laws did not spring out of a vacuum. The Information and Communication Technology Act, which was passed in 2006 under the BNP-Jamaat government, was used to arrest more than 1,200 people. It has been actively used by all parties, not just BNP-Jamaat.
There are now nine laws that directly or indirectly affect the media. An additional three are in draft form. The fourth, the Press Council Act, is in the offing. All in all, it makes for a total of 13 laws.
According to senior journalists, it may not be wrong to surmise that, in today’s Bangladesh, there are more laws to restrict journalism and free speech than there are laws to restrict terrorism, smuggling, money laundering, food adulteration, selling fake medicine, etc. As if gauging freedom of press has become a priority to a section of ruling elites.
On June 20, 2022 during a press briefing, journalists were told that the Press Council (Amendment) Act had been placed before the cabinet. The cabinet, in a preliminary consideration, had struck out the provision of fines up to BDT 1 million for compromising state security, harming public harmony, and unethical journalism. The draft also proposed a fine of BDT 500,000 for violating Article 12 whose contents, like the rest of the draft Act, are unknown not only to the media but also to the Press Council itself.
It was also stated that the cabinet removed the fine amount and left it to the discretion of the Press Council. The proposed draft empowers the Council to take cognizance, on its own, of any offence related to news, articles or cartoons committed by a newspaper or news agency that goes against the Council’s code of conduct and also that compromises security, independence and sovereignty of the country. The Act will be applicable to print and digital media houses.
In plain words – another law being prepared to throttle press freedom and the freedom of expression. Again, vague terms like “harming public harmony” and “state security” are being inserted into a law to be interpreted subjectively, and used only to harass and intimidate journalists and punish dissenting voices.
The truth is, it is the journalist community that fought for and established the Press Council as they wanted a quasi-judicial body for strengthening press freedom, ensuring stricter adherence to professional ethics as well as addressing public grievances against shoddy journalism. The idea was that a body, headed by a senior judge, and a general body comprising members of the profession – editors, journalists, press workers etc, as well as renowned civil society members and parliamentarians would act as a protective shield against attempts to muzzle the media by upholding the principles of the Constitution. What was initiated by the media leaders to improve journalism has now been turned into a weapon to punish them. (IPA Service)
By arrangement with the Arabian Post