We're Live Bangla Tuesday, June 06, 2023

Press freedom in the face of digital blockade

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World Press Freedom Day this year coincided with Eid. But while everyone celebrated Eid in Bangladesh, there was no Eid joy for the families of murdered journalists Borhanuddin Mozakker of Companyganj and Elias Hossain of Narayanganj. This is the second year that these two families have passed a joyless Eid.

I wrote about these two journalists last year on World Press Freedom Day. Mozakker was killed in clashes resulting from the family feud and political conflict of the ruling party's general secretary's brother. It was feared that there would be no justice for this murder and till now there are no indications of these fears being groundless.

Elias didn't lose his life for writing anything against anyone so powerful. He had written about the illegal pilferage of gas by the local bigwigs. Nothing has been heard of any progress being made about that case either.

As for the case regarding the journalist couple Sagar-Runi, who were killed around almost ten years ago, the force known to be the country's most elite force, on 26 April approached the court for the 88th time, seeking further time to complete their investigations. It is hardly likely that anyone expects this investigation to be completed even if they seek extension from the court for the 100th time.

India's major financial newspaper Business Standard published a report of India's national news agency, Press Trust of India (PTI). The report quoted a tweet of the London-based Economist's journalist Susannah Savage. In the report that expressed fear that Bangladesh's new tech law would muffle the voice of journalists, the newspaper quoted her tweet saying that the intelligence agency in Bangladesh had picked her up and interrogated her and then eventually deported her from the country. In the report, 'Bangladeshi tech law would gag journalists, embedded authoritarianism', it was said that the government had focused on regulation that created a culture of fear, intimidation and digital authoritarianism.

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In Susannah's tweet, she gave a picture of herself at home after undergoing a brain surgery. After returning from Dhaka, she had developed a brain aneurism due to mental and physical torture, facing the risk of a sudden stroke from brain haemorrhage. Earlier, in a podcast of The Economist on 23 August last year, she has spoken of being harassed in Dhaka. I have not heard of the Bangladesh government giving any response or explanation to this. The mention of this in the Indian media is not a matter to be overlooked.

According to PTI, a newly drafted legislation could go beyond the draconian Digital Security Act, effectively turning Bangladesh into a surveillance state. The last vestige of differing views, freedom of speech and free press would be snatched away. The report said that while there has been significant growth in the media industry in Bangladesh in recent years, most media outlets are backed by the current regime, reflecting a corrupt nexus between political power and media ownership. The boundaries of press freedom and digital spaces are set by the regimes, with multiple tactics including partisan licensing, revenue control and even repressive control.

The India press agency went on to say, the government also creates invisible fear' by using state apparatus. In addition to the oppressive regulatory framework, the rapid growth of political ownership of the media industry mutually shapes media policy that restricts the free flow of information and press freedom in Bangladesh. Both television channels and newspapers are forced to constantly negotiate and compromise their journalism. They survive through self-censorship, silencing voices and views critical of the government.

We may have forgotten Golam Sarwar, that journalist from Chattogram who was found deliriously muttering, "Don't beat me anymore, I won't do any more reporting." This journalist of the Chattogram bureau of Ajker Surjodoy was picked up and taken away for reporting on the misdeeds of a powerful minister's brother.

His abductors tortured him mercilessly for three days and then on 1 November 2020 threw him by a canal in Kumira, Sitakundu. I had written about his sufferings too on World Press Freedom Day last year. This time I have to write about the cruel irony of his fate. The police investigative report found no evidence of his being abducted. To make matters worse, the minister's brother filed a defamation case against him and this was investigated by the Police Bureau of Investigation (PBI). Staying at home for long in the face of all sorts of harassment and threats, he finally left the locality.

It is clear in the statement of the Editors' Council that the Digital Security Act has become a weapon to teach a lesson to those expressing differing views and criticism. It is difficult to get bail under this law. Whatever authority the law has to grant bail and whatever rights to bail are recognised, it has become a norm under the digital security act not to grant bail.

On the completion of three years of the Digital Security Act, a study of the Centre for Digital Studies stated that they found 668 cases filed under that law till last October (the government has not published any official figures in this regard). Ruling Awami League leaders and activists have filed 85 per cent of these cases. And one in every four of the accused persons is a journalist. And the number of journalists is disproportionately high among the arrested. Of the 499 arrested, 42 are journalists.

With the global rise in populist and ultra-nationalist leaders, and with the weakening of democracy, independent press is gradually becoming more and more difficult. The Russian aggression in Ukraine had added to the threats to journalism outside of the battlefield. The recent statement by the Russian embassy in Dhaka reminds one of this. Centering on the war, there is all sorts of control, fake news and propaganda in the digital media too.

The digital world is a new area of control on free press by the authoritarian governments. In this backdrop, UNESCO fixed the theme of this year's World Freedom of Press Day as 'Journalism under Digital Siege'. Preventing this siege is now the main task to protect freedom of the press. The International Press Institute (IPI) has made 10 recommendations to the democratic states to tackle this challenge. These include that these countries protect freedom of press at home; avoid enacting or applying laws that can be modelled by authoritarian regimes to restrict the press; ensure regulation of social media and online spaces is consistent with international human rights standards; ensure that the fight against disinformation is not used to restrict freedom of expression, which gives cover to repressive regimes to do much worse; refrain from engaging in or enabling unlawful surveillance of journalists and civil society; show zero tolerance for attacks on the press; and make the promotion and protection of press freedom core elements of foreign policy.

Even though accountability for attack on journalists and differing views is not the focus of foreign policy, the US has made this an important part of its foreign policy from about a year or so back. This has not been discussed much in countries like ours, unlike the issue of human rights. We got to know about this element in the US foreign policy because of the sanctions on seven officials of RAB and the entire force under the Magnitsky Act.

Another such law for sanctions was drawn up regarding attacks on journalists and differing views after the killing of the Washington Post Saudi journalist of dissident views, Jamal Khashoggi. This 'Khashoggi ban' was first applied against Saudi Arabia and visa bans were imposed against 76 of its officials and citizens. This ban was imposed on an unknown number of Belarus officers on 3 February. The US said that they may not reveal in advance against whom these sanctions will be imposed.

Other than this, the US, UK, Canada and several countries of Europe have jointly taken up several measures to protect freedom of press. The persons involved in journalism have a vital role to play in protecting press freedom. The draft of the social media and OTT act and data protection law indicates how inviolable the Digital Security Act is to be in our country. The question is, will we unite to tackle this and uphold our rights, or will we be washed away in the tide of politics and vested interests?

Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.