One essential element of any democracy, universally acknowledged throughout the ages, is a free press. But sadly, in Bangladesh, press freedom is becoming increasingly more restrictive and is diminishing. Just in the month leading up to World Press Freedom Day (May 3), five journalists were sued under the Digital Security Act, according to one voluntary research outfit. A total of 24 journalists were sued under different laws in April, with most of the cases being filed by ruling party lawmakers or their men.
According to the UK-based rights organisation Article 19, a total of 631 incidences of attacks on journalists and human rights defenders took place in 2020, in which a total of 265 journalists were attacked. As a result, the rights organisation expressed serious "concerns about the rising numbers of cases against journalists and online communicators under the DSA" and the "overall lack of security and protection of journalists" and others in Bangladesh.
Over the past year, journalists who have risked their lives to cover the pandemic and expose corruption in important government aid programmes have been relentlessly harassed for their service to society, particularly using the draconian DSA. As a result, Bangladesh saw one of the highest numbers of press freedom violations linked to the pandemic in the Asia-Pacific region—during a period when press freedom across the world seemed to have suffered a serious blow—according to data from the International Press Institute (IPI). And this trend has been observed to be perpetrated mostly by "authoritarian and illiberal-minded" regimes, according to the IPI.
Despite the protections guaranteed by Article 39 of our constitution to freedom of thinking and conscience as well as the freedom of speech and expression of all citizens—which essentially also ensures freedom of press—the failure of the state to ensure these rights are protected is a grave travesty. In fact, in many cases of violations of these rights, the state has been implicated, either directly or indirectly, which is even more concerning.
Despite these realities, or perhaps even more so because of them, now is the time when we must all raise our voices to reclaim this most precious right of ours—the right to free speech. And as an extension of that, the right to free press. The importance of these rights in our eternal search for the truth, which is the only guiding beacon any civilised society has at its disposal, has to be recognised.