"Journalism in Bangladesh is like swimming in a pond full of crocodiles"
Expressing concern over the two proposed acts relating to media freedom, US Ambassador to Bangladesh Peter Haas feared that some of the provisions in the draft acts could be used to intimidate journalists.
"We are concerned about the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission's draft 'Regulation for Digital, Social Media and Over-the-Top Platforms' and the draft 'Data Protection Act'. While neither draft has been finalised, we fear they contain provisions which could be used to further intimidate journalists and others eager to express themselves," he said.
Addressing a discussion styled "Commemorating World Press Freedom Day 2022" at the EMK Centre in the capital yesterday, he said the US has made its concerns about the Digital Security Act (DSA) clear -- both in its Annual Human Rights Report and in meetings with government officials.
"As you all know, this law threatens reporters with criminal prosecution if they publish things the government finds false, offensive, derogatory or defamatory."
Referring to the "Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index," Haas said Bangladesh ranked 162nd among 180 countries, a drop of 10 places compared to the previous year.
He said one reason Bangladesh scored so low is the DSA, which the report calls "one of the world's most draconian laws for journalists".
In the same report, the US ranked 42nd among 180 countries. "Yes, that is in the top 25 percent but it's far from the top. Frankly, the United States needs to do better," he mentioned.
Stating that a free press is a key ingredient in a legitimate and free democracy, He said, "We all have an obligation to protect the free press and to allow journalists to seek and report the truth without fear, harassment or censorship."
About the next general polls, he said the US policy on Bangladesh polls is that the people of the country should have the ability to choose their own government through free and fair elections conducted in line with international standards.
Ito Naoki, Japanese ambassador to Bangladesh, said that as freedom of expression is protected in Bangladesh constitution, it shouldn't be constrained by a particular law, the DSA.
Referring to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's statement that "in this country you can express your opinion, no matter what it is", Naoki said, "I think it is a very important statement in light of the fact that Bangladesh is going to graduate from LDC status; Bangladesh is going to achieve inclusive growth and SDG goals. So, this is a very basis of further democratic development of this country."
Terming Dhaka a centre of regional diplomacy, the ambassador said it's clearly there to see that Bangladesh needs to be better in every aspect of democratic development.
"So, I am sure that press freedom should be a part of that. This is related to branding Bangladesh. As Bangladesh develops, I hope it will be able to ensure press freedom in a more perfect sense."
Canadian High Commissioner to Bangladesh Lilly Nicholls said the role of journalists is unique and absolutely critical for a just and democratic society.
Praising Bangladesh media for carrying on work amid huge pressure and tough situations, British Deputy High Commissioner to Bangladesh Javed Patel said free and credible media is essential for good governance.
"As the election is due next year, it's essential that Bangladesh retains space for both the incumbent party and the opposition to campaign so that people can make their own choices and above all for their choices to count on the election day."
About the DSA, he said, "We share concern about the use of the Digital Security Act and note that the government stated interest in amending the act to prevent its misuse. We continue to encourage the government to follow through on its commitment."
About the new communications laws that are in the pipeline, he said, "We will encourage further dialogue with media professionals and the civil society to pave the way for more inclusive and permissive information environment, particularly ahead of the election next year."
Presenting the keynote paper, former president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul said freedom of press is guaranteed in the constitution but in some cases, freedom after expression is restricted by some laws in Bangladesh.
"There are more than two dozen laws that sometimes create obstacles to freedom of expression."
Pointing out the challenges for journalists, he said, "Doing journalism in Bangladesh is like swimming in a pond infested with crocodiles."
Putting forward a set of recommendations, Bulbul said it's necessary for Bangladesh to have a tolerant society and media literacy and see an end to the culture of impunity to uphold the freedom of press.
Matiur Rahman, editor of Daily Prothom Alo, shared his experience of five decades as a journalist and said Bangladesh media is moving forward despite various types of pressure and risks.
Referring to the 1962 movement against the then military ruler Ayub Khan, he said, "Even after 60 years, we are talking about media freedom and doing journalism without fear and intimidation."
Matiur shared his experience as editors of Bhorer Kagoj and Prothom Alo, and said sometimes government advertisements and sometimes private advertisements were stopped. There were also instances of harassment through lawsuits in different districts during the tenures of BNP and Awami League governments.
He said the DSA has become a big barrier to free press in the country.
A moment of silence was observed in the honour of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was tragically killed in the West Bank on May 11.