Persecution of journalists: Condemnation isn’t enough
The way Prothom Alo correspondent Samsuzzaman Shams was picked up from his residence at around 4am on Wednesday by plain-clothed police, and later reported to have been arrested under the Digital Security Act (DSA), demonstrates the deeply disturbing state of freedom of expression in Bangladesh. This was followed up by more disconcerting news that a case has been filed against the editor of the newspaper, Matiur Rahman.
That Samsuzzaman's detention was not acknowledged by police for at least 18 hours after he was picked up is not something unique, but only the latest example of a pattern we have witnessed over the past decade. While police initially claimed no knowledge of his arrest, later Law Minister Anisul Huq and Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader told the press that specific complaints had been filed against Samsuzzaman. According to the available information, Samsuzzaman was "arrested" in a case filed by a man named Syed Md Golam Kibria under the DSA with Tejgaon police station in Dhaka. The case against Matiur Rahman was filed under the same law by Abdul Malek, a lawyer of the Supreme Court.
No matter how much the ruling party claims that the large number of media outlets in the country is evidence of freedom of the press, incidents like these are enough to lay bare the real picture. Add to this the government's decision to close down newspapers supported by the opposition party and the cancellation of domain allocation of 191 online news portals based on the information of government intelligence agencies, and one can get a better picture.
The annual freedom of the press index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in May 2022 shows that Bangladesh has slipped down 10 notches in a single year. Bangladesh was ranked 162nd out of 180 countries in the index, with a score of 36.63 in 2022. There is no reason to think that this year's report, expected to be published in May, will show any sign of improvement. This can be assumed from the fact that a recent human rights report released by the US Department of State highlighted the impediments to freedom of expression and the internet in Bangladesh. According to the report, the media, known to be critical of the government and the Awami League, have been harassed. Advertisements in those media have been cut. For this reason, many media houses have voluntarily avoided criticising the government.
Samsuzzaman's arrest has exposed the intimate relationship between the government and the ruling party supporters, including "journalists," "editors" and "media," who have been running a fierce campaign against him after the publication of a report on Independence Day. They can take comfort in this arrest as a "success" of their campaign. But they not only jeopardised Samsuzzaman's safety as an individual, but also harmed Bangladesh's image and interests. Ironically, these individuals and media outlets are often concerned about the image of the country. Those who think that the way these supporters are explaining these actions will be acceptable to everyone live in an echo chamber.
The dwindling state of freedom of expression is only one aspect of the overall political situation in the country. Another aspect of this situation is reflected in the arrest and death of Sultana Jasmine, an office assistant in the Rajshahi land office.
The entire saga pertaining to the report in question is well-known. As explained by Prothom Alo, a "card" used for social media promotion was posted on Sunday quoting Zakir Hossain, a daily wage labourer, highlighting a news report on Prothom Alo's Facebook page. Although Zakir Hossain's name and quote was used on the card, a picture of a child was attached to it (who was also quoted in the report). As the newspaper understood that the quote of one and a symbolic picture of the other could be misconstrued, it was removed from social media less than 17 minutes after it was posted. Later, the report was revised, and the amendment was mentioned and published online again. Nowhere in the report was it said that the highlighted statement was made by the child. Rather, it has been clearly stated that the quote belongs to Zakir Hossain. There was no factual error in this report. One can at best complain about not-so-apt visuals, but that, too, is a stretch as using a symbolic picture with a report is not unusual in the media. Yet, the newspaper considered it an error, admitted the "mistake," and corrected it in a short time.
For more than a decade, legal and extra-legal measures have been employed by the government to muzzle the press. Common citizens have been subjected to harassment even for expressing the slightest dissent. Relatives of journalists have been detained, attacked, and harassed. For this, state agencies are being used in white clothes. Additionally, censorship has been "outsourced" or "franchised" to activists of the ruling party. Both offline and online, these forces are engaged in harassing and attacking people who hold contrarian views. It was well-known that these were perpetrated with the knowledge and consent of the government and the ruling party, but the arrest of Samsuzzaman has made it clear that the government and these activists collude in attacking dissenting voices and creating an environment of fear.
The dwindling state of freedom of expression is only one aspect of the overall political situation in the country. Another aspect of this situation is reflected in the arrest and death of Sultana Jasmine, an office assistant in the Rajshahi land office. She was picked up from the street in broad daylight while on her way to work, without a warrant, let alone a case filed against her. She "died" while in the custody of Rab.
Incidents of custodial torture have now become a normal affair, ignoring the clear directives of the High Court and flouting a law passed in 2013. The detention and "death" of Sultana Jasmine have once again shown the nature of the existing system of governance. They showed that the "verbal complaint" of an official of the government is sufficient to activate a force and act against a citizen. The presence of the said government official during "the interrogation" by Rab defies any logic or prevalent laws. But, there have been repeated attempts to justify the unlawful detention, so-called interrogation, the mysterious presence of an official, and the "sudden death" of an arrestee.
It is also worth noting that the legality of this detention is now being constructed through post facto filing of a case under the DSA. Needless to mention that the law, since its introduction in October 2018, has been criticised by human rights activists at home and abroad. I have demonstrated with data of 47 months, gathered under a project of the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS) (January 2023), that the law is nothing short of a tool of persecution. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said on March 7 that under the DSA, "criminal sentences continue to be handed down against those exercising their rights to free expression and belief." The law has provided state agencies with the power to pick up anyone from the street, as was the case of Sultana Jasmine.
The incidents of being picked up by plain-clothed state actors, denied freedom of expression, being tortured, and dying in custody are essentially no different from the incidents of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. These are now commonplace because the country is being governed by imparting fear. Coercion and intimidation are at the heart of the system of governance. The 2023 annual report of the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem), one of the world's leading research institutes on democracy, has once again called Bangladesh an "electoral autocracy." In each of the indicators used by V-Dem to measure the state of democracy in a country, the situation in Bangladesh has worsened in 2022 from the previous year. Another research organisation, The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), has been classifying Bangladesh as an autocracy for quite a few years. This kind of rule survives through the denial of the right to freedom of expression, assembly, and voting.
It is our moral duty to condemn the arrest of Samsuzzaman Shams and demand his immediate release. In an equal measure, we must condemn the case against Matiur Rahman. However, we must also remember that there is no alternative to repealing the law under which Samsuzzaman and many others have been detained over the past years. It also needs to be clearly stated that his release and even the withdrawal of the case against him are not enough. Until voices are raised against the prevalent system of governance, unless the unaccountable system of governance which rests on force and repression is challenged, incidents like these will be repeated.
Ali Riaz is distinguished professor of political science at Illinois State University and a non-resident senior fellow of the Atlantic Council. He is currently affiliated with the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute at Gothenburg University in Sweden as a visiting researcher.