Eight global and regional human rights bodies yesterday wrote a letter to the UN human rights chief, expressing concerns over the state of media freedom in Bangladesh and urging authorities to protect and respect freedom of expression.
"On the occasion of World Press Freedom Day, we write to draw your attention to the escalating human rights violations perpetrated by the Bangladesh government, exemplified in part by the increasing crackdown on press freedom and the freedom of expression of journalists, activists and dissidents," says the letter.
The rights bodies that wrote to Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, are Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, Asian Human Rights Commission, Asian Network for Free Elections, Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.
The letter was copied to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, ambassador/head of delegation of the EU to Bangladesh, EU Special Representative for Human Rights and US ambassador to Bangladesh.
The rights bodies said seven years ago, UN special mandates communicated with the Bangladesh government to give attention to "the arrest of journalists and the adoption of disproportional punitive measures disrupting the activities of newspapers and televisions".
However, since retaining power in December 2018, the ruling Awami League party has taken an even tougher line with the media, the letter said.
With widespread repression of the media and the harassment of editors who publish reports critical of the government, journalists have taken to self-censoring at unprecedented levels given the risks of imprisonment or closure of media outlets, it said.
Journalists have been subjected to violence by party activists, arrested arbitrarily, and news sites have been blocked, the rights bodies said in the letter.
In recent months, according to the letter, a number of journalists have been targeted for their work, and those who expose government corruption or express dissent are particularly at risk.
At least 17 journalists were injured covering protests over the visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in March 2021.
According to the rights bodies' letter, demonstrators and police officers hit journalists with rifle butts, sticks, iron rods, stones, and bricks, and journalists were shot with rubber bullets resulting in various injuries including bruises, swelling, bleeding, broken bones, a dislocated shoulder, and a cracked skull.
In 2020, at least 247 journalists were reportedly subjected to attacks, harassment, and intimidation by state officials and others affiliated with the government, the letter said.
It added that authorities continue to use the Digital Security Act to harass and indefinitely detain journalists, activists, and others critical of the government, resulting in a chilling effect on any expression of dissent.
"This overbroad cybercrime law, passed in 2018, effectively stifles journalism by criminalising peaceful speech at the discretion of the government."
The letter said more than 900 cases were filed under the DSA between January and December 2020; with nearly 1,000 people charged and 353 detained. Bangladesh authorities are poised to undertake even more prosecutions of DSA cases, as the law ministry has approved a proposal to expand the number of special tribunals specifically for these types of cyber "crimes".
On April 20, 2021, Bangladesh police arrested Abu Tayeb, a Khulna journalist who was charged under the DSA for an alleged Facebook post.
"We respectfully urge your mandates to explore avenues to hold Bangladeshi perpetrators accountable and urge the government of Bangladesh to respect and protect the right to freedom of expression, repeal the Digital Security Act, and release all journalists, critics, and activists who are in detention for speaking out."