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Attack on press freedom intensifies in Bangladesh

Digital Security Act is being used to stifle truth and muzzle dissent, says journalist leader

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Attack on press freedom intensifies in Bangladesh

Journalists demonstrate in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka to demand the release of prominent photographer Shahidul Alam from police detention in 2018. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

A Catholic official and a journalist leader have condemned Bangladesh’s deteriorating state of press freedom as more journalists face abuses and court cases.

At least nine journalists have been charged recently under the country’s draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) and four have been arrested.

In the latest case, Shafiqul Islam Kajol, a photojournalist, was detained in Benapole town in Jessore district near the Indian border on May 3. He was charged with trespassing.

Kajol went missing from his workplace in capital Dhaka on March 10, a day after he was among 17 people charged under the DSA by a parliamentarian for allegedly tarnishing his image with a social media post.

His family feared that he might have been a victim of an enforced disappearance and demanded that state authorities release him.

Three journalists in Narsingdi district were arrested under the DSA on May 1 for publishing a report that implicated a policeman in a custodial death.

On April 20, five journalists including two editors were charged in two separate cases under the DSA over news reports about corruption and the theft of rice meant for the poor by local politicians during the Covid-19 shutdown in the Baliadangi area of Thakurgaon district.

“We are trying to solve the issue, but police cannot do or say anything without a proper investigation for cases under the Digital Security Act,” Habibul Haque, officer in-charge of Baliadangi police station, told UCA News.

The DSA is a massive obstacle to freedom of speech as it is meant for the stifling of truth and muzzling of dissent, said Bidhan Chandra Das, a journalist leader and blogger in Thakurgaon district.

"The Digital Security Act is a threat to journalists. We are afraid of doing reports that go against local political leaders. It compromises the responsibilities of journalists to speak the truth," Das, convener of Thankurgaon District Online Press Club, told UCA News.  

Without freedom of speech and freedom of the press, a country is destined to be derailed from the right path, said Holy Cross Father Liton H. Gomes, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.

“The time of the Covid-19 pandemic has shown how very bad things can be for journalists who dare to speak the truth. Sometimes we have seen the same behavior from the government itself as it tries to curb freedom of speech. This law is not abused only against journalists but also against those who criticize the government,” Father Gomes told UCA News.

“The government in a democratic country should have respect for public opinion, so this act should be amended to stop abuses.”

In recent times, freedom of expression and the press have been under serious threat. Bangladesh was ranked 150th out 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index 2019 by Reporters Without Borders, a global press freedom watchdog.

Bangladesh’s Information and Communication Technology Act 2013 and Digital Security Act 2018 have some extremely repressive sections that threaten freedom of expression.

More than 400 people including journalists have been charged under the DSA since Bangladesh’s parliament enacted the law, according to rights groups.

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