Already under fire from the digital security law, Bangladeshi journalists face even worse censorship if a new bill is passed.
I was arrested, detained, interrogated and eventually deported by the intelligence services because of my reporting, Susannah Savage, a freelance journalist working for The Economist in Bangladesh, recently tweeted after being interrogated and forced to leave the country by the Bangladeshi intelligence forces. Human rights activists have long railed against the Bangladeshi government’s use of the controversial Digital Security Act to gag the media and freedom of expression, to no avail.
Bangladesh continues to fall in the World Press Freedom Index: Hundreds of people, including journalists, university professors, cartoonists and photographers, have been arrested and imprisoned for “spreading disinformation against government and state” on social media platforms.
Significantly, while journalists constitute a disproportionate group among the total number of arrests, around 80% of the accusers are politically affiliated with the Bangladesh Awami League, the ruling centre-left political party. The newly drafted legislation could go beyond the draconian Digital Security Act, turning Bangladesh into a surveillance state.
Under the guise of regulating tech companies, the law would mandate the tracking and interception of end-to-end encrypted services offered by social media and messaging platforms. All digital platforms, including social media and over-the-top (OTT; direct via Internet) media services, must be subject to strict government oversight. The very last space for dissent, free speech and independent journalism will be removed.
The regulations are dense and complicated, and come as the Awami Leagueled government continues to accumulate power by regulating free speech and social media. Although there has been significant growth in the media industry in Bangladesh in recent years, much of the media is supported by the current regime, reflecting a corrupt nexus between political power and media ownership. The limits of press freedom and digital spaces are set by regimes, with multiple tactics including partisan licensing, revenue controls and even repressive control.
The government also creates an “invisible fear” by using the 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. Television stations and newspapers are forced to negotiate and constantly compromise their journalism.
They survive thanks to self-censorship, the silence of voices and opinions critical of the government. At the same time, misinformation and hate speech on Facebook have fueled community violence and attacks. The public understands the need to regulate the digital space to combat hate and misinformation, as well as to hold monopolistic tech giants such as Facebook and Google to account. But instead of regulating the tech giants directly, the government has focused on regulation that creates a culture of fear, intimidation and digital authoritarianism.
It would be best to promote digital critical thinking skills and media literacy among Bangladeshis to ensure a more informed and inclusive society free from digital hate and misinformation. State-led investments in digital infrastructure and digitalization policy in Bangladesh under the “Digital Bangladesh” agenda have stifled press freedom and freedom of expression for many years. As media scholar James Carey once said, when democracy falters, journalism falters, and when journalism falters, democracy falters.
(Only the title and image of this report may have been edited by Business Standard staff; the rest of the content is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)