Policy Recommendations on Accessing Freedom of Press in the context of Bangladesh
The Issue and Its Significance
‘Reporters without Borders’ , an international non-governmental organization with the aim of safeguarding right to information reported that Bangladesh dropped ten notches from 2021 and ranked as 162nd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index for the year 2022 (Report, Star Digital). The ranking of Bangladesh’s neighboring South Asian countries also embodies the reflection of the ever so deteriorating condition of press freedom in this part of the world.
The collapse of press freedom, considering it both a domestic and global challenge, can alarmingly destroy the pillars of any democratic country. Provided that civil liberties and freedom of press continues to be an integral part of a democratic regime, constant restriction on freedom of expression may cause the worst result in the long run. Therefore, it is imperative for us to realize the need for honest and fact-based journalism which can contribute to our democratic liberties (“Media Freedom”).
In this regard, one of the main obstacles that cannot be denied is definitely the Government’s exponentially rising crackdown on press freedom. Along with that constant proactive support to favorable media outlets, giving lucrative offers to not release a piece of specific news, or giving death threats to the journalists, all of these can be accounted as the culprits (“Media Freedom”). Moreover, the Government is also facing challenges to ensure freedom of the press to access public information and to protect fundamental freedom in accordance with national legislation and international agreements (Habib).
Furthermore, the United Nations has adopted Goal-16 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) which refers to the Right to Information, particularly Target-10 which is directed towards ensuring fundamental freedom and safety of journalists (Habib). Although the targets were made with the intention to promote democracy and strengthen the rule of law, even after many years countries are still far away from achieving such goals. Thus, in the age of digital technology and communication media, flow of information cannot be barred at any cost.
Henceforth, I do believe that this particular issue requires menacing attention from the policymakers to realize the risk of potential arbitrary arrest, torture, and suppression to which the Bangladeshi journalists have been subjected to on a regular basis. Additionally, the policymakers of our country should evaluate the concerns made by Human Rights Organizations, to make this clear to the Bangladesh Government that freedom of expression is essential to realize democracy and it cannot be deteriorated by making national security, an easy scapegoat (“UN: Stand with Bangladeshi Journalists”).
The Historical Background and Current Situation
Benedict Anderson was of the opinion that the rise of the nation-state is the long awaited out-turn of print media, as these two are closely interlinked. If we revisit the long struggle of Bangladesh’s political freedom against the West Pakistani regime, we may surely find traces of media freedom during that time as . However, the aftermath of independence has a completely different story to tell when due to governance; the press media became chaotic, inconsistent, and incoherent.
To depict the current situation of media freedom in Bangladesh, we can take into account the recent incidents that have been occurring in Bangladesh to restrict the civic space during the Covid-19 pandemic. In recent months, journalists like Rozina Islam, Abu Tayeb Munshi, and Rahul Amin Gazi have been criminalized and detained for reporting about the pandemic (Civicus). Along with that, there has been no accountability from the government or by the law enforcement agencies for the death of writer and commentator Mushtaq Ahmed who died in custody for allegedly spreading anti-government speech (Civicus).
Moreover, if we evaluate the present government’s effort towards press freedom, the establishment of the ‘Right to Information’ (RTI) commission in 2009 by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s holds a remarkable place (Saifullah). The commission was established with the intention that the government officials will be bound to provide the necessary information to the newsmen within a specific period prescribed by law to maintain accountability and transparency between the two sides. Reportedly, under the RTI, 119,831 individuals were served their requested information across the country within December 2020 (Saifullah). Other than that, the Digital Bangladesh program implemented by the Government to reinforce the media freedom in
our country has seen the availability of electricity, high-speed internet, and providing computers, and mobile phones at a cheaper cost. However, it is ironic that the positive changes could not bring the desired result in our country for a longer period of time.
Since independence, our country’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been contributing to the state’s daunting task of energizing the press media industry. For this purpose, Bangladesh NGOs Network for Radio and Communication has implemented projects like ‘Strengthening Independent Media in Bangladesh’ with the objective to build the capacity of journalists to report in a conflict-sensitive environment (BNNRC). Other than that, recently, on the eve of world press freedom day, non-governmental organizations expressed their concern by letter to Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human rights to address the continuing attacks on the journalists and to take efficacious measures regarding this issue (“ UN: stand with Bangladeshi Journalists”).
On the contrary, from a comparative approach if we look at the Nordic Countries which have been regularly ranked at the top in the Press Freedom Index, we can be relieved of the fact that the scene of global press freedom is not entirely blank. From the smooth functioning of the Proportional Representation (PR) system to self-governed media ownership and implementation of co-regulatory frameworks to support ethical journalism, the press in these countries has been remarkably termed as ‘Free’ (Manager). Similarly, if we take the example of countries like Malaysia and Ecuador which significantly improved in press freedom in the last 2 years; in these countries the lifting of political pressure has rebound the media censorship (‘Media Freedom”). That is why these kinds of effective models may be implemented to rebuild the desire for Freedom of the press in Bangladesh as well.
For the purpose of this paper, I have accumulated 3 essential recommendations which I think can be fruitful and achievable to combat the primary challenges that exist in our country to access press freedom –
- Amending the draconian Digital Security Act, 2018
First and foremost, the Government of Bangladesh needs to amend the Digital Security Act, 2018 which undoubtedly can be labeled as one of the most repressive laws the country has ever experienced.
The government also needs to take into account the fact that the governing party should not accuse any journalists based on false claims under this horrendous Act. For instance, one Shafiqul Islam Kajol was detained for 53 days in India-Bangladesh border for expressing his dissenting views about the governing party under this vague legislation (Chowdhury). In this regard, our government needs to take into account the observations of Human Rights Organizations like Amnesty International which showed grave concern about the rising number of cases under DSA and also quoted the journalists of our country as prisoners of conscience (Chowdhury).
In this regard, the government first needs to pass the bill in the parliament to amend the DSA, and also they are to order the police to not take any case against someone just on the basis of the fact that the ruling party’s member is aggrieved. Also, the government needs to put pressure on
the authorities and judicial bodies to not prosecute and dismiss future cases on the trial level which comes on the basis of some flimsy and vague laws like the DSA.
- Regulation of Surveillance Technologies
The Intelligence forces and law-making agencies including the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) need to ensure that any kind of surveillance tool used with the intention to curb crime rates should not stem rampant abuse of free speech. Civil society members also need to raise their voices against the constant threat to the right of privacy and freedom of journalists which has been hampered.
The RAB needs to be mindful about using their newly launched technology named ON-site Identification and Verification System (OIVS) which can dig up someone’s NID to criminal history with databases within seconds (Ahmed). Along with RAB, other intelligence agencies that are operating such tracking systems need to keep in mind that although state surveillance is not completely illegal, the government should not impose political repression with such tools (Ahmed).
In this context, the government and intelligence agencies both need to make sure that they do not conduct surveillance on online news sites without following any legal framework; a Sweden based investigative journalism website called ‘NETRA NEWS’ was blocked for publishing a report of corruption against the minister of the ruling party (Bangladesh: online Surveillance). Thus, communications surveillance needs to be regulated by specific and legitimate directions which match the proportionality of security objectives. Moreover, the Government also needs to
ensure that illegal surveillance either by public or private actors should be criminalized (“Two Sides of the Same Coin”).
- Self-Censorship needs to stop
The Journalists and the media institutions need to stop self-censorship to ensure that more unfiltered and unadulterated news is coming to the citizens. And to make this happen, the Government needs to make sure that attacks or threats either from the state itself or from powerful quarters of the state are completely diminished.
The journalists need to make sure they do not reach the unprecedented level of self-censorship for the fear of being imprisoned or the closure of their media outlets, as suggested by Reporters Sans Frontiers in its annual report (Paul et al.) I do believe that before the Government takes any relevant steps, the editors and the journalists need to overcome their fear to not delve into what is supposed to be published and what should be thrown into the trash based on the ruling party’s preference (Paul et al.).
To end, the core purpose of this paper is to address that administrative and state harassment does not exist against a journalist to restrict them from doing their professional duty. Also, to build conscience among the people in power to stop their tailor-made demands of “do not publish” to corroborate the rise of press freedom in Bangladesh .
Ahmed, Kamal. “Surveillance without Any Oversight.” The Daily Star, 15 Mar. 2021, https://www.thedailystar.net/opinion/news/surveillance-without-any-oversight-2061077.
Ahmed, Mir Aftabuddin. “Self-Censorship and the Media: Where Are We Heading?” The Daily Star, 29 May 2021,
“Bangladesh: Online Surveillance, Control.” Human Rights Watch, 28 Oct. 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/01/08/bangladesh-online-surveillance-control.
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Paul, Ruma, et al. “In Fear of the State: Bangladeshi Journalists Self-Censor as Election Approaches.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 13 Dec. 2018,
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