Bangladeshi activists shout slogans as they march in the street protesting the deaths of secular publishers and bloggers, in Dhaka, in this file photo. (Photo by Munir uz Zaman/AFP)
The Arab crisis surrounding Qatar and the demands by the Saudi Arabia-led campaign to shut down its influential Al-Jazeera news agency shines a light on the growing threats against freedom of speech in the region.
David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, described the demand as a "blow to media pluralism" in a recent statement.
As media freedom continues to plummet in the wake of populist, authoritarian leaders in Europe and America, such as Donald Trump, Digital Content Next, an influential media alliance that includes the BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times and Washington Post, has unequivocally leaped to the defense of Al-Jazeera.
Meanwhile, in Bangladesh, a war is raging, both covertly and publicly, against free speech despite the constitution ensuring its people freedom of expression.
Attacks on media and freethinking
Increasingly arbitrary restrictions have been placed on media and written works in Bangladesh by each regime since it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971. The current austere regulations imposed by the ruling Awami League, the party that led the struggles for independence and has been in power since 2008, has surpassed those of its predecessors.
The government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power after a controversial election on Jan. 5, 2014 boycotted by the major opposition parties. The absence of an effective political opposition has allowed the increasingly authoritarian rulers to adopt a policy of muzzling dissent.
The state apparatus has forced several newspapers and online sites to shut down or curtail their operations, pulled the plug on two television stations, while half a dozen prominent journalists are being hounded with criminal charges.
According to Ain-O-Salish Kendra, a Dhaka-based rights organization, 117 journalists experienced abuse and harassment in 2016, including nine at the hands of government forces and 20 who faced police charges.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, meanwhile, says 21 journalists have been killed since 1992, including 16 with impunity. Horrific murders of seven secular bloggers by Islamic militants since 2013 add to the tally of egregious acts.
The combined onslaught of restrictions and attacks on freedom of speech mean Bangladesh has scored very poorly in a 2017 report by Freedom House, a U.S.-based democracy and media freedom monitor, with the status "not free" attributed to the South Asian state.
Aside from infrequent and ineffective public protests by rights groups such as Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, journalists and freethinkers in Bangladesh have no good friends to defend or protect them.
Muzzling dissent and intimidation
Last year, Mahfuz Anam, editor of leading Bangladeshi English newspaper the Daily Star, came under fire from the government after he conceded in a TV interview he had published unsubstantiated reports of corruption fed by the military intelligence agency during an army-backed state of emergency, 2007-2008.
Prime Minister Hasina called for Anam's resignation, while her son called for his prosecution for treason. This encouraged Awami League activists to file 62 criminal defamation and 17 sedition cases against Anam in 53 courts across the country. The lawsuits altogether totaled over US$8 billion.
Anam was forced to move across the country to secure bail orders before the High Court ruled against the court cases.
Matiur Rahman, editor of Prothom Alo (First Light), Bangladesh's highest-selling Bengali daily, and journalists associated with the paper are currently facing court charges for criminal defamation and "hurting religious sentiments."
Many believe the ire against the country's top two newspapers is payback for criticizing the government for failing to hold free and fair elections in 2014. The two papers have experienced significant financial setbacks thanks to the government wrath.
In August 2015, the military intelligence agency reportedly ordered some 20 large companies not to advertise in the Daily Star or Prothom Alo. The ban was allegedly triggered by their respective reports on the killings of five men in the restive Chittagong Hill Tracts. They labeled the slain as "indigenous peoples" rather than "terrorists," as the army officials would have preferred.
Overnight, the papers lost 30 percent of their advertising income, putting their very existence at stake. The government and military have denied allegations of the ban order, but it continues today.
The government's actions have clearly sent a chill down the spines of the media establishment. None of their peers have dared to report on the unwritten and unlawful ban. A senior correspondent at the Daily Star recently claimed in a private meeting that the paper's reporters are "unofficially banned" from attending events with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Abuse of restrictive, ambiguous laws
Bangladesh has a British colonial-era 1898 code of criminal procedure in which articles 295-298 rule that anyone who offends the religious sentiment of its citizens be punished.
This law doesn't provide any clear-cut definition of religious sentiment, nor how religious sentiment can be hurt. Clearly however, it is widely abused by the state and non-state actors, including Islamic radicals, against journalists and so-called atheist bloggers to intimidate them and to force them from writing on radicalism and any cohesion between politics and religion.
Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act 2013 has made it the most draconian law against freedom of speech in Bangladesh's modern history. The law makes it illegal to publish any material over the internet that would "deteriorate law and order," prejudice the image of the state or an individual or defame religion. It gives police the powers to make an arrest without a warrant, with a maximum sentencing of 14 years' jail time and a fine of 1 million taka (US$12,288).
This law has been used to harass journalists, bloggers, writers and publishers in recent years. In 2015, a disabled journalist was arrested for reporting on Hindu property-grabbing by a Muslim government minister, while four bloggers were arrested for "hurting religious sentiment."
Amid the criticism at home and abroad, the government recently decided to drop Section 57 of the ICT law. Now, activists and critics have been alarmed with the forthcoming Digital Security Act, where this repressive law is poised to make comeback in a reworded format.
Last year, the Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act 2016 was passed equivocally. It allows the NGO Bureau — a state body under the Prime Minister's Office — to suspend registration or to close an organization down if it makes any "derogatory" remarks about the constitution or "constitutional bodies," which includes the parliament, the election commission, the comptroller and auditor general, the attorney general's office, the public service commission and the judiciary.
Critics say the law is aimed at silencing outspoken non-government agencies that press government to check on corruption, to ensure good governance and human rights.
While Islamic militants targeted secular bloggers and writers for their criticisms of religious malpractices, especially of Islam, the government didn't stand beside them. Instead, the prime minister and police chief publicly admonished the writers for crossing a line.
Amidst a dark atmosphere and death threats, more than a dozen bloggers and freethinkers have fled the country and settled in Europe and America. Those who couldn't leave have employed self-censorship in their writings and continue to maintain a low profile.
A blow to democracy and development
Bangladesh had endured 15 years of military rule before 1990. Yet, the country made significant strides in socio-economic development over recent decades, including almost self-sufficient food production, poverty reduction, lowering maternal and infant mortality, and almost 100 percent primary school enrollment.
A big credit for these advancements goes to a vibrant media, the tireless activities of development groups and critical appraisal by civil society groups. Despite the dirty-rotten, blood-feuding politics between the two major political parties, the fledgling democracy has thrived thanks to public support for free speech and media freedom.
Thus, the growing threat to free speech, from both the state and non-state actors, undermines Bangladesh's democratization and development progress. Bangladesh needs to wake up and the international community must act on restoring free speech before it's too late.
Rock Ronald Rozario is a journalist for ucanews.com, based in Dhaka.