Bangladesh: The Fight for Free Speech & Media

KAISARA WALTON WRITES — Bangladesh’s government recently enacted a controversial new law, the Digital Security Act, invoking sections of the colonial era 1989 Official Secrets Act, which included restrictions in freedom of the press. Press releases from other entities such as the US, the EU, and human rights activists have condemned this law, suspecting it to be a front for government-sponsored censorship and unwarranted arrests.  

Passed by  Parliament on September 19, the Digital Security Act mandates up to 14 years of imprisonment for actions such as: retrieving information about a government official by means of electronic devices and spreading “negative propaganda” about the country’s independence or its founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Persons might even be subjected to searches if police officials suspect them of having intentions to violate this law.

Why create this Digital Security Act? Its issuance seems rushed and defensive, say journalists from Bangladesh’s largest English-language newspaper, the Daily Star. Mahfuz Anam, an editor at the newspaper’s magazine said, “the government hurriedly passed the law, totally ignoring the opinions of Sampadak Parishad, Bangladesh’s Federal Union of Journalists and Association of Television Channel Owners.”

There have been worldwide protests. A joint statement issued by leaders of the  EU deemed it an act that “unduly restricts the freedom of expression and the freedom of the media and undermine(s) judicial procedural guarantees.” The United States’ ambassador to Bangladesh, Marcia Bernicat, also expressed concern about limits on free speech. “We encourage the government of Bangladesh to consider changes to the law that would bring it into conformity with the Bangladesh Constitution and with Bangladesh’s international commitments on human, civil, and political rights,” Bernicat said.

Human rights activists, NGOs and think tanks all over the world are worried about ramifications of the Digital Security Act. Human Rights Watch compiled a comprehensive section on how the Act’s language censors, and even deters, free speech and journalism. They fear this marks the beginning of the end of investigative journalism in Bangladesh.

The law has also faced criticism at home. On October 16th, Bangladeshi journalists from the Daily Star held a protest, announcing several demands in light of the increasing limitations on free speech that the government would advance with this law. Zafar Sobhan, an editor at the Dhaka Tribune, went on record to lament that the law “will have a chilling effect on media freedom.”

Nevertheless, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, has remained a strong supporter of the law, championing it as a saving grace for journalism. She believes journalists needn’t fear consequences if they chase stories ethically, and don’t produce false or fabricated news stories that might mislead people. In light of the recent death of journalist Kashoggi, allegedly at the hands of Saudi Arabian officials, isn’t such a statement of grave concern?

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