At least 247 journalists were reportedly subjected to attacks, harassment and intimidation by the government in 2020
Father Augustine Bulbul Rebeiro, secretary of the Catholic bishops’ Commission for Social Communication, has joined global rights groups in calling on the United Nations to protect press freedom in Bangladesh, where the media faces increasing government restrictions and journalists are intimidated, abused and assaulted.
On World Press Freedom Day on May 3, eight human rights groups — Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA), Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), Committee to Protect Journalists, Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights — jointly issued a letter to Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.
The letter urged Bachelet and the United Nations to publicly and vigorously express concern about continuing attacks on the media, including arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings, and use all possible means to urge the Bangladeshi authorities to protect and respect freedom of expression.
The rights watchdogs said they want the UN’s attention on “the escalating human rights violations perpetrated by the Bangladesh government, exemplified in part by the increasing crackdown on press freedom and the freedom of expression of journalists, activists, and dissidents.”
They added: “In light of the continuing attacks on the media, we now respectfully urge you and other UN special mandates to engage in sustained outreach by publicly and vigorously expressing concerns over the situation of media freedom and using all means at your disposal to urge the Bangladeshi authorities to protect and respect freedom of expression.”
At least 247 journalists were reportedly subjected to attacks, harassment, and intimidation by state officials and others affiliated with the Bangladesh government in 2020. More than 900 cases were filed under the draconian Digital Security Act with nearly 1,000 people charged and 353 detained, many of them journalists, says a statement from Human Rights Watch.
The authorities continue to use the Digital Security Act (DSA) to harass and indefinitely detain journalists, activists and others critical of the government, resulting in a chilling effect on expression of dissent. Bangladesh authorities are poised to undertake even more prosecutions of DSA cases after the Law Ministry approved a proposal to expand the number of special tribunals specifically for these types of cyber “crimes,” it added.
“The UN and donors should continue to take every opportunity to call on the government to repeal the Digital Security Act and release all those detained under it,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Anyone violently targeting journalists and activists should be held accountable, including ruling party activists.”
The Catholic Church advocates for freedom of expression and freedom of press, which are constitutional rights, but the current scenario in Bangladesh is forcing media to increasingly apply self-censorship, said Father Rebeiro.
“It is difficult to describe the pressure from the government directly exerted on the media in Bangladesh, but there are various reasons behind self-censorship. Among the various reasons for this censorship might be an invisible pressure from the government and involvement of various people in the government with the media houses,” Father Rebeiro told UCA News.
“It is true that the government is harassing journalists, writers or others through the Digital Security Act. The government as well as others are abusing this law. It is certain that the government is using this law to silence the media.”
Father Rebeiro said freedom of expression and the press won’t be possible if the government is not cordial on the issue, and a collaboration between the government and the media is needed to abolish this problem.
Bangladesh stands 152nd out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2020 released in April by Reporters Without Borders.