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Press freedom: What does this slide in index indicate?

Press freedom

Whenever any international organisation or institution praises Bangladesh’s development, the government policymakers start talking about this loudly. But whenever any such organisation or country reveals decreasing civil rights or press freedom in Bangladesh, the same policymakers become proactive to discover “conspiracies” and “malice” in the statements. No exception was seen when Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) published the World Press Freedom Index, 2022.

According to the RSF report, Bangladesh has slid down 10 notches and ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index. The country was positioned at 152 in the index last year. Like the Human Rights index, Bangladesh has been gradually declining in the press freedom index too. We consider the lowest position among South Asian countries as shameful for us. Digital Security Act (DSA) is one of the main reasons of this gradual slide. In Bangladesh, there are many other laws to snatch press freedom. For example, the Special Powers Act, 1974, Official Secrets Act, ICT Act and Section 99 of the Penal Code. Several journalists faced harassment and served in jail under those acts. But the Digital Security Act, 2018 has turned into a nightmare for journalists.

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In a statement on the World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, the Editors’ Council expressed concern about the Digital Security Act and said the DSA is creating obstacles to freedom of media. The theme of this year’s World Press Freedom Day was “Journalism under digital siege.” Whatever the government’s policymakers say about the law to curb crimes committed through digital media, actually, most of the cases filed under the act are against journalists. Several sections of the act are nonbailable. An accused has to go to jail just after the case is filed. As the ruling party men and law enforcers are mainly the plaintiffs, the speed of the suit’s proceedings also accelerate.

A total of 38 cases have been filed under the Digital Security Act in the first three months this year, according to UK-based rights organisation Article 39. Five of the defendants are journalists. In 2020, among the 631 recorded attacks carried out against the journalists and rights activists, 265 victims were journalists. Prothom Alo’s senior correspondent Rozina Islam was harassed by the officials when she was carrying out her duties at the health ministry last year. A case was filed against her under the colonial era Official Secrets Act, mainly to harass her. Despite journalists demonstrating against this harassment, the case has not been withdrawn as yet.

In this context, how is independent journalism possible in Bangladesh? Though our Constitution ensures press freedom, the various governments have resorted to different tactics to curb the freedom. The Digital Security Act is the latest tool.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Hasan Mahmud has termed the RSF report malicious, objectionable and unacceptable. The organisation has added some background information alongside the ranking. Bangladesh free itself from this shame of sliding down in the index if the minister, instead of denying the truth, takes steps to curb the overuse and misuse of the Digital Security Act.