Press freedom is in peril
For a country whose destiny till now has largely been shaped for the better by dissenting voices – oftentimes coming from within the more courageous sections of the independent press – it is extremely disheartening to have to come to terms with the decrepit state of press freedom today. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Bangladesh is ranked 163rd in the latest World Press Freedom Index published today – the lowest among all South Asian countries except for Myanmar – out of 180 countries. And if that wasn't terrifying enough, the rapidly worsening trajectory of Bangladesh's positioning in the rankings over the past years – 121 in 2019, 152 in 2021, and 162 in 2022, followed by 163 in 2023 – should have caused a massive national outcry, followed by serious retrospection to find out how exactly we've gotten here. But unfortunately, what we have seen over the last year is the complete opposite of that.
There has been a lot of hostility displayed over the past year, particularly by government officials and ruling party affiliates, against the press. But that, perhaps, should not come as a big surprise, as it is the duty of the press to challenge power and to hold it to account – which naturally causes the powerful to push back. What has been shocking, however, is how openly that has been done and the tactics and pretences that have been used to shut down critical voices. What is further worrying is the complete lack of accountability for those who have broken the law – such as attacking or even murdering journalists – to prevent media workers from doing their jobs of informing the public.
As journalists, human rights defenders and even the general public have repeatedly pointed out, the Digital Security Act (DSA) has created an environment that is the antithesis of one which allows press freedom and free expression to exist, let alone flourish. The main and most glaring problem with it is that it has been framed in such a way that "allows" for the law to be abused.
And since its enactment, that is exactly what has happened, with data from the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) showing there have been at least 355 cases filed against journalists using the law and, almost half of all cases being filed by people affiliated with a political party or government officials. In spite of all that, more laws seem to be in the offing to allegedly "regulate" the press – or rather, in our case, force it to remain passive and silent in the face of exploitation and lawbreaking by the powerful.
The prevailing situation clearly does not allow the press to function freely. Yet, the biggest danger of that is that it impedes upon the people's right to information and knowledge. When people are forcibly kept in the dark, democracy cannot exist. It is from this dangerous quagmire that we need to dig ourselves out of.