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Bangladesh: Press freedom under attack with largest daily newspaper declared an 'enemy' by the Government

© Syed Mahamudur Rahman/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Prothom Alo is the largest circulated newspaper in the country

This year alone 56 journalists have been tortured, harassed, sued, intimidated and prevented from doing their jobs

Digital Security Act flagrantly used to attack journalists and news outlets

‘The Government is sending a very clear message [that] this is what happens when you cross the limits of speech we have been set’ – Senior News Editor

Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s largest daily newspaper, is the latest news outlet to come under increasing attack from the Government - with journalists being intimidated, harassed and arrested - signalling a deepening crisis for press freedom in the country, said Amnesty International today.

On Monday (10 April), Bangladeshi prime minister Sheikh Hasina called Prothom Alo “an enemy of the Awami League, democracy, and the people of Bangladesh”, while speaking in Parliament, with reference to an article published by the outlet on the country’s Independence Day, covering the cost of living in Bangladesh.

The journalist who wrote the article, Shamsuzzaman Shams, was arrested and charged under the country’s draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) and later granted bail. The paper’s editor was sued under the DSA and named as the main accused in one of the two cases against Shams.

Hours after the Prime Minister’s statement, a group of individuals barged into Prothom Alo’s office in the capital city of Dhaka, issued threats and vandalised its logo in the reception by writing boycott over it.

Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s South Asia Director, said:

“This is the latest in a series of attacks by the Bangladesh government threatening press freedom in the country.

“Penalising a media outlet, publisher or journalist solely for being critical of the Government or the policies it promotes is a restriction of the right to freedom of expression that can never be justified.

“The use of the draconian Digital Security Act on journalists and attacks on some of the country’s largest news publications is being used as a weapon by the Bangladeshi authorities to silence critics and suppress dissent.

“The authorities must repeal the DSA and immediately cease the harassment and intimidation of journalists in Bangladesh.”

Journalist charged under draconian DSA

On 29 March, Bangladeshi journalist Shamsuzzaman Shams was picked up at his home by a group of plain clothes officers that identified as the Criminal Investigations Department. His whereabouts were unknown for around 10 hours, after which the police stated that he was in custody and being charged under Bangladesh’s draconian DSA.

A family member of Shams said to Amnesty:

We were worried sick… There was no warrant issued against him. No one informed us of anything. Even when it was confirmed that he was in custody, that too we came to know from mass media.”

Prothom Alo’s editor, Matiur Rahman, and a group of “unnamed people” were also charged under DSA, including a photographer. Although Shams was granted bail on 3 April, and released from prison, if convicted he could face up to seven years behind bars.

Campaign to cause terror

A senior news editor from Bangladesh speaking to Amnesty described the Government’s crackdown on Prothom Alo as a deliberate campaign “to create an atmosphere of terror ahead of the general elections”.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, he said:

The Government is sending a very clear message [that] this is what happens when you cross the limits of speech we have been set. Even if journalists eventually receive bail, until the day the case is dropped the pressure will remain.

“Many of those who criticise the ongoing crackdown on freedom of press in Bangladesh think the DSA is being misused by targeting journalists. However, this is a conceptual mistake. The DSA is not being misused – it is being used exactly in the way the Government intended the law to function.”

Press freedom under attack

Bangladeshi authorities stopped the publication of the Daily Dinkal on 20 February, the only newspaper belonging to the main opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).

A total of 56 journalists have been tortured, harassed, sued, intimidated and obstructed from doing their jobs in the first three months this year according to data published by Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a Bangladeshi legal aid and human rights organisation.

Digital Security Act

Amnesty has documented the escalation in the use of the DSA against independent media and journalists following critical reporting on leaders of the ruling Awami League party. Amnesty has also published its findings of a concerning pattern in which the authorities have weaponised Sections 25 (publication of false or offensive information), 29 (Publication of defamatory information), and 31 (Offence and punishment for deteriorating law and order) of the Act to criminalise dissent. This includes criticism expressed by journalists, activists, and human rights defenders.

On 31 March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk called on Bangladesh to impose an immediate moratorium on the use of DSA until it is reformed to ensure compliance with international human rights law. The Commissioner expressed concern that the DSA is being used across Bangladesh to arrest, harass and intimidate journalists and human rights defenders, and to muzzle critical voices online”.

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