Bangladesh media faces more restrictions: Amnesty

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MNA Editorial Desk: The Bangladeshi government has stifled freedom of expression by failing to protect dissenters and using repressive laws and tactics, London-based Amnesty International has said in a report.

“Between the violence of armed groups and state repression of the state, secular voices in Bangladesh are being consistently silenced,” said Amnesty’s Bangladesh researcher Olof Blomqvist.

Most media workers, interviewed by Amnesty, said media freedom was at its worst since Bangladesh returned to democracy in 1991, although the government insists that there was “enough freedom” for journalism in Bangladesh.

In a statement, Amnesty claimed that Bangladesh had frequently invoked “archaic, colonial-era criminal defamation and sedition laws against critical journalists.”

After the Awami League retained office in 2014, the authorities have used “criminal charges and other tactics to harass and interfere in the work of media outlets in an effort to silence critical reporting”, the report – Caught between fear and repression: Attacks on freedom of expression in Bangladesh – alleged.

It claimed that the government had made use of a “repressive legal framework” containing “a number of laws that stifle the right to freedom of expression”. While some of these laws date back to the colonial-era, others have been introduced more recently.

The fear of being charged, imprisoned or falling victim to physical violence has led to extensive self-censorship, the report noted.

A journalist, who was not named, told Amnesty that there was indirect pressure on media not owned by ruling Awami League supporters to not to cross the line.

“They can ban the newspaper or revoke your licence. In a very intelligent way, the government is controlling the media,” the journalist said.

The website of Sheersha News was shut down by the government in August 2015 without any explanation.

“… By closing down news portals, the government is sending a clear message to all media firms that they won’t tolerate any news organisation that does not follow their line,” Ekramul Hoque, the head of Sheersha News, was quoted in the Amnesty report as saying.

The report highlighted at length various obstacles Bangladeshi journalists and news media faced. It referred to a statement issued by the Editors’ Council on February 25, 2015, in which the council alleged that the government was interfering with the media’s rights.

“Independent and impartial news gathering and publishing are facing obstructions from the government and administration,” the statement claimed but the government denied the allegation, dubbing it “devoid of reality, fabricated, motivated and unfortunate.”

A number of editors and journalists have been accused in criminal cases and cases under the ICT Act in recent years.

Amnesty said the purpose was to “send a message to the individuals themselves to avoid certain topics, and to dissuade other journalists and outlets from challenging the authorities.”

Killings, physical violence, threatening journalists have also been used as tools of repression. The other measure used was putting pressure on advertisers to cease advertisements in selected newspapers – the major source of revenue for newspapers.

Olof Blomqvist, Amnesty International’s Bangladesh researcher, said the government treated journalism “as if it were a crime”.

“Through imprisonment, threats, intimidation, and constant interference in their work, Bangladesh’s government has done all it can to silence critical voices in the media.”

The report also documents “how armed groups have thrived in a climate of impunity, carrying out a high-profile spate of killings of secular bloggers with few consequences.”

In the last four years, only a single case – the killing blogger Ahmed Rajib Haider – has resulted in convictions.

It said the government has refused to provide protection to secular writers and activists who face regular death threats. This forced some of them to leave the country for their own safety.

Although the killings of secular activists have received considerable international and domestic attention, the shrinking space for freedom of expression has been less widely reported, the report says.

An international NGO worker, interviewed by Amnesty, said the pressure on freedom of expression was “much more institutionalized today than before”.

“The authorities have more or less ‘managed’ the opposition, the only credible threat left now is from media and civil society.”