Free Speech under fire: investigative journalism censored in Bangladesh

Bangladesh authorities are blocking access to online news sites in violation of the right to free speech and access to information, according to HRW.

On December 29, 2019, access to the Sweden-based investigative journalism website Netra News was blocked within Bangladesh in retaliation for releasing a report exposing corruption by Obaidul Quader, the the newly-reelected general secretary and a minister in the Awami League government. Previously, there were at least six corruption cases pending against him in 2008/2009 according to according to his own affidavit filed with the Bangladesh Election Commission.

The Bangladesh government previously blocked access to other prominent media outlets such as Al Jazeera, The Wire, and many  Bangladeshi news websites for publishing stories critical of the government or exposing corruption. In December 2019, the government declared that the Home Ministry was reviewing all online news sites and that all news outlets will require prior government approval and an official registration from 2020 onward. At least 3,595 news sites have applied for the registration, the requirement has been in place since 2014, and according to the ministry of information “steps would be taken” against those that failed to apply.

“The Sheikh Hasina government in Bangladesh continues its march toward authoritarianism, willing only to allow praise, and shutting down criticism,” said Brad Adams, HRW Asia director. “These restrictions disregard the basic principles of free expression and suggest that the government has plenty to hide.” Journalists are already self-censoring and avoiding critical topics concerning corruption to avoid any retaliation from the government.

According to one newspaper editor interviewed by HRW he currently publishes only “10 to 20 percent” of the news at his disposal, while another claims bout 50 percent of content is self-censored. Under the 2018 Digital Security Act, journalists face life in prison for “propaganda” against the nation and up to 10 years for any content that “hurts religious sentiments or religious values” or “destroys communal harmony, or creates unrest or disorder.” There have been a reported 29 arrests under the law in 2019, often targeting investigative journalism and content critical to the ruling party.

“As the Bangladesh government increasingly stifles its civil society, it’s critical for the international community to press the government to uphold the basic principles of democracy, including a free press.” said Brad Adams, HRW Asia director

The Netra News editor, Tasneem Khalil, alleges he had information that intelligence agencies had blocked access to the site. “Telecom authorities told Al Jazeera that there was no official order to block Netra News but indicated that the DGFI had the capacity to block websites“. In 2019, the government forced all internet service providers to install Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment to block or surveil internet traffic. So far the government has blocked over 20,000 websites under the guise of conducting an “anti-pornography” sweep, but it mostly popular blogs and social media in a blatant attempt to repress and control national speech.

“The introduction of such technology opens the door to rampant abuse under Bangladesh’s vague and overly broad legal framework on surveillance, seriously threatening the rights to privacy and freedom of expression”, according to HRW. The government on the other hand declared that its definition of “national security and public order” as “keeping the state and the people safe and disciplined against any kind of unpleasant, provocative event,

The Bangladesh government has essentially granted itself the powers to freely block speech and information without oversight and at its own discretion. “Controlling access to information is one of the hallmark signs of an authoritarian government”.

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