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Expressing one’s social, political and religious views in Bangladesh has become riskier than ever. A sweeping drift towards monitoring and striking down freedom of speech, particularly in digital space, is now unmistakably evident in Bangladesh. Journalists, bloggers and online activists are being categorically targeted by both extremist groups as well as the law enforcement agencies.
Since inception, the Bangladesh Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act was riddled with sweeping controversies and criticism. Enacted in 2006 and amended in 2013, the lCT act was full of gaping loopholes making it a perfect instrument to subvert online expression in Bangladesh. The ICT act was routinely used to suppress freedom of speech and harass writers, activists, and journalists, often for their comments on social media. According to the Cyber Tribunal in Dhaka, around 700 cases were filed under section 57 of the ICT act between 2013 – early 2017.
This ICT act later transformed into the Digital Security Act (DSA) of 2018 which is even broader than the law it replaced and violates the country’s international obligation to protect freedom of speech. Writers, bloggers, journalists, newspapers, TV channels, social-media-users of Bangladesh are directly affected by the adverse effects of the digital security act. The situation has created a condition wherein media and journalists live in constant fear of sanction of the Government for it can label anything they publish as unlawful under the DSA and thereby, subject to detention. This fear or mindset of deference compels news media to comply with the process of the practice of constitutionalism and pledging to ensure rule of law.
In 2107 year, violations of the right to freedom of expression in Bangladesh reached their highest point in five years, with 335 incidents, according figures released by international watchdog ARTICLE 19 in 2018. (May 2018, ARTICLE 19 report to mark World Press Freedom Day 2018).
335 violations of the right to freedom of expression in Bangladesh in 2017: this is the highest figure in five years
The nature of violations is changing significantly: cases of legal harassment of communicators rose from 33 in 2013 to 169 in 2017
Of the 76 cases of legal harassment, 35 were initiated on grounds of defamation, 19 on false information, 14 on grounds of tarnishing the image of state or of individual, three on grounds of provocation, two on obscenity, and a further two for hurting religious sentiments.
In 2017, there were 28 cases of serious bodily injury, 75 cases of minor assault, and 10 cases of abduction. In the 10 cases recorded, journalists were released after promising to refrain from publishing certain reports.
Reporters without Borders ranked Bangladesh at 146th out of 180 countries in its index of press freedom. Online activists and human rights defenders have reduced writing in both print and online media, as well as reducing their expression or posts on social media on topics related to freedom of expression, women’s rights, labor rights, indigenous peoples’ rights, freedom of religion and secularism.
Furthermore, censorship of digital content and communication medium, including blocks on YouTube, Face book, Skype and blogging platforms, has become rampant. ‘Freedom of expression and speech’ and ‘freedom of press’, as enshrined under article 39 of the Bangladesh Constitution, are qualified rights. Hence, the Digital Security Act is in a path of conflict with the Constitution of Bangladesh. Similarly, Bangladesh is a signatory of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The DSA is also in collision with article 19 of the UDHR which guarantees freedom of speech from all forms of censorship.
The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, particularly, SDG-16 asserts: “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all level.” Bangladesh government is committed to achieve SDGs by 2030. However, freedom of expression is widely restricted that sharply indicates that Bangladesh is violating fundamental freedoms and is not complying its commitment on SDG 16.