Journalism under siege on digital front
Journalism in Bangladesh is under siege on the digital front, beginning from surveillance to draconian laws.
This has led to a culture of fear and self-censorship, curtailing freedom of expression and silencing independent media.
Editors and publishers of newspapers across the country convened to present this statement at a discussion yesterday to mark the World Press Freedom Day. The programme was organised by the Editors' Council at the CIRDAP auditorium.
At a session titled "Press Under Digital Siege", all speakers condemned the expansive list of laws that can be used to silence journalists.
These include the defamation law in the Code of Criminal Procedure, the Information Communication Technology Act, the Digital Security Act, the draft Data Protection Act, the draft BTRC regulations for social media and the draft OTT platform regulations.
Mahfuz Anam, president of the Editors' Council, asked, "What is it that journalists do that our hands and feet must be bound with so many laws?"
There are 20 provisions in the DSA that prosecute offences related to freedom of expression and 14 of those are non-bailable, he said.
Even the most impartial, best-intentioned judicial system cannot prevent the incarceration of a journalist being prosecuted under the DSA, since the offences are non-bailable, he added.
"What offences do journalists commit that they do not even deserve bail?"
Nurul Kabir, editor of New Age, said the press operates within a culture of "extralegal" oppression – a kind that abuses repressive legislation.
"Whenever a culture of fear is established, it is always because of the deficit of a free press. Freedom of expression is a political right."
Kader Gani Chowdhury, the president of the BNP-faction of the Dhaka Union of Journalists, said, "Previously, it was not possible to write against influential people on mass media. Now it is not possible to write against them on [even] social media."
He added, "Laws should be made for the public's benefit, whereas they have [instead] been made to violate the rights of the people. This is meant to threaten them into silence. Leaders should be open to criticism."
Nazrul Islam Mithu, president of Dhaka Reporters' Unity, said, "The defamation law in the country is a remnant of our colonial legacy. But even the British have turned defamation into a civil offence – it is no longer a criminal offence [there]."
Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul, former president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, said the Official Secrets Act is another colonial act that gets pulled up on a whim to persecute journalists.
"Globally, trust in the media is eroding. New laws that repress independent media will intensify this."
"The digital ecosystem has opened up the possibilities to further journalism but, at the same time, has brought us under surveillance," said AK Azad, publisher of Samakal and president of the Newspaper Owners' Association of Bangladesh.
M Abdullah, president of BFUJ (BNP faction), commented, "Journalists already operate in a culture of surveillance, where their movements are monitored."
Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, editor of Manabzamin, said, "Our corporate owners censor us. They tell us not to publish reports – they kill reports even before we get to see them."
Shyamol Dutta, editor of Bhorer Kagoj, stressed on the importance of maintaining unity as a community and casting aside any political bias to tackle the crisis, while Omar Faruk, the chairperson of BFUJ, echoed the same thoughts.
"None of the governments have fully supported the press. They have always seen us as adversaries," said Golam Rahman, editor of Ajker Patrika.
Dewan Mahmud, editor of Bonik Barta and general secretary of the Council, moderated the event.