In its annual press freedom index, Reporters Sans Frontières has dropped Bangladesh to 150th out of 180 countries – the lowest ranking it has ever received. Bangladesh’s Information Minister Hasan Mahmud disputed the report’s findings, saying there is “no censorship on news.” His claim would be laughable if the reality weren’t so serious.
In fact, censorship in Bangladesh has reached a stifling high. Activist and photographer Shahidul Alam spent over 100 days in jail for spreading “propaganda through social media” under Bangladesh’s draconian Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, after he criticized the government’s violent crackdown on student protesters. Other journalists attempting to report on the same protests were beaten with machetes and metal pipes by supporters of the ruling Awami League while police stood by. And dozens more have been arrested under the ICT Act and its even more repressive successor, the Digital Security Act.
Despite calls from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the United States, the European Union, and journalists within Bangladesh to repeal and revise the Digital Security Act to comply with international human rights law, the government has continued to use the law to silence criticism. Journalists are under immense pressure to self-censor or risk arrest. One newspaper editor told Human Rights Watch that he currently publishes only “10 to 20 percent” of the news at his disposal. “You have a culture of fear, an environment of fear,” he said.
Last month, the National Telecommunication Monitoring Centre blocked access to Al Jazeera after the news agency published a report citing allegations against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s security advisor. In February, the government blocked nearly 20,000 websites in what was described as an “anti-pornography” sweep, but which included somewhereinblog.net, a popular blogging site that serves as a platform for 250,000 registered bloggers, Bengali Google Books, and popular social media apps, TikTok and Bigo.
Mahmud said that his government “will work more in the future to ensure freedom of press.” For that to happen, authorities will need to accept that criticism is crucial in a democracy.