Journalists work in front of a Covid-19 hospital in Dhaka, Bangladesh on April 20, 2021.  © 2021 Syed Mahamudur Rahman/NurPhoto via AP

(New York) – The Bangladesh government’s increasingly violent crackdown on media freedom is of urgent concern on World Press Freedom Day, nine nongovernmental organizations said in a letter today to Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Bachelet and UN experts should publicly and vigorously express concerns over continuing attacks on the media including arbitrary arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings, and use all possible means to urge the Bangladeshi authorities to protect and respect freedom of expression.

At least 247 journalists were reportedly subjected to attacks, harassment, and intimidation by state officials and others affiliated with the Bangladesh government in 2020. More than 900 cases were filed under the draconian Digital Security Act with nearly 1,000 people charged and 353 detained – many of them journalists.

“Bangladeshi journalists are risking arbitrary arrest, torture, and their lives just to do their jobs,” said Angelita Baeyens, Vice President of International Advocacy and Litigation at Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. “The UN and concerned governments should stand with journalists and make clear to the Bangladesh government that freedom of expression is essential to democracy.”

Bachelet’s March 1, 2021 statement following the death in custody of a writer, Mushtaq Ahmed, and torture of a cartoonist, Ahmed Kishore, was important for highlighting the dangers facing journalists in custody, the organizations said.

In recent months, a number of Bangladeshi journalists have been targeted for their work. Those who expose government corruption or express dissent are particularly at risk. At least 17 journalists, a majority of them photographers, were injured covering protests over the visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March. Demonstrators and police officers hit journalists with pistol butts, sticks, iron rods, stones, and bricks. Journalists shot by rubber bullets sustained bruises, swelling, bleeding, broken bones, a dislocated shoulder, and a cracked skull. During these protests, there were also reports that Facebook and Messenger services were restricted in Bangladesh.

Media critical of the ruling Awami League party is frequently censored. The Bangladesh government has allegedly targeted websites and YouTube channels of Bangladeshi dissidents abroad, media reports said. In March, for instance, the Indian news website Scroll was inaccessible in Bangladesh, media reports said, after publishing an article by a Bangladeshi writer criticizing Gowher Rizvi, a Bangladesh government adviser. With widespread repression of the media and the harassment of editors who publish reports critical of the government, journalists have taken to self-censoring at unprecedented levels given the risks of imprisonment or closure of media outlets.

The authorities continue to use the Digital Security Act (DSA) to harass and indefinitely detain journalists, activists, and others critical of the government, resulting in a chilling effect on expression of dissent. Bangladesh authorities are poised to undertake even more prosecutions of DSA cases, as the Law Ministry has approved a proposal to expand the number of special tribunals specifically for these types of cyber “crimes.”

“The UN and donors should continue to take every opportunity to call on the government to repeal the Digital Security Act and release all those detained under it,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone violently targeting journalists and activists should be held accountable, including ruling party activists.”