Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina speaks with a reporter during the UN General Assembly in New York in September 2017. Photo: Reuters/ Stephanie Keith
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is delicately positioning her nation in the Indo-Pacific contest between the US and China. Photo: Agencies

“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.” – John Stuart Mill, philosopher 

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Bangladesh now ranks 151st out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, thus falling five places this year. Many Bangladeshi and international organizations have written to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asking her to take concrete actions to guarantee journalistic freedom. Journalists and cartoonists have been facing an alarming surge in physical and judicial attacks with relation to the Covid-19 crisis. 

These organizations have also called upon the head of the government to amend the controversial and abusive Digital Security Act and draft a law that would provide protection for journalists and free speech. Given the very disturbing number of press-freedom violations, particularly in recent weeks, it is feared that the country could fall further in the index next year. 

What is this infamous Digital Security Act? To get an idea, this is what Amnesty International stated in 2018:

“Bangladesh’s new Digital Security Act is an attack on freedom of expression that is even more repressive than the legislation it has replaced. The vague and overly broad provisions of the new law could be used to intimidate and imprison journalists and social media users, silence dissent and carry out invasive forms of surveillance.

“The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately [emphasis added].”

Yet not only has the Bangladeshi government not amended the act, it has vigorously ramped up the violence used to enforce it. 

On July 1, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an article titled “Bangladesh: Repeal Abusive Law Used in Crackdown on Critics.” In this article, HRW states that the “Bangladesh authorities are using the abusive Digital Security Act to harass and indefinitely detain activists, journalists and others critical of the government and its political leadership.” 

Brad Adams, the Asia director of HRW, stated: “At a time when the government should be reducing the prison population to protect against the spread of Covid-19, they are locking people up simply for their comments on social media.”  

In June, Bangladeshi authorities investigated five journalists and detained two under the Digital Security Act. Their crime was “Covid-19 reporting.” This can be understood to mean that those investigated and detained were simply commenting on what the public already knew: that there is mass corruption by the ruling party’s leaders and goons with respect to pandemic-related funds and food supplies.

Should anyone dare to speak the truth about the ground realities, he or she falls prey to the notorious Digital Security Act. Even a 15-year-old was not spared and was arrested for criticizing Sheikh Hasina on Facebook. 

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has also expressed deep concern over the recent attacks, threats, lawsuits, intimidation and jail sentences against concerned citizens in the name of the Act. The victims of these injustices simply want to talk about the corruption and irregularities they experience via the news, cartoons, photographs and social media posts.

It is not as though their observations and comments are based on falsehoods. They are truthfully revealing the irregularities in the health-care system and relief distribution during the pandemic. They are wrongfully convicted on the false grounds of spreading rumors, providing wrong information, criticizing the government (a fundamental right guaranteed in any nation which wants to be taken seriously as a democracy), defamation, among others. 

This year alone, there have been 50 cases of detentions under the Digital Security Act, according to TIB. Since it came into effect in 2018, 180 journalists have been sued. In 2019, 38 journalists were victims of lawsuits, harassment and arrests. 

The statistics are haunting and the motive is clear. Such draconian measures to punish efforts at transparency and accountability can only mean that things are not right at all and that the state is attempting at all costs to keep a tight lid on grave and unethical wrongs. But the lid is consistently torn away by journalists, writers and ordinary citizens who want to report the truth about the ills committed by the abusive ruling party in Bangladesh. 

We have all heard the broken record of ruling party members claiming everything which goes against their interests is a mischaracterization, misunderstanding, harmful to the public, etc. They should wake up and realize that their strategy following Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s minister of propaganda who is believed to have said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes accepted as the truth,” is not working any longer. It has not worked in years and will not do so in the future. 

Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League stands on crutches without any public support. Well, at least not the kind of public who want to live with dignity in a state that provides the support system and pride that is constitutionally their right. It has come to the point where even a staunch Awami League publication, Prothom Alo, takes the view that the party does not have any answers any longer for its misdeeds. That is absolutely accurate. 

How can it provide answers? There are so many overlapping falsehoods building up for decades that perhaps even the powers that be cannot recall which untruth it has told and when. 

There is a popular saying, “I wholly disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” often attributed to Voltaire. It is much too late for the Awami League even to begin down this path. Its public support is lost, to say the least. 

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a political analyst focusing on the politics of the U.S. and Bangladesh in international publications. She is the co-author and editor of Bangladesh: A Suffering People Under State Terrorism (Peter Lang, 2020), A former elected member of the US Democratic Party overseas (Democrats Abroad). She is the Editor-in-Chief of Aequitas Review. She is also the Vice President & Treasurer of The Coalition for Human Rights & Democracy in Bangladesh based in the U.S.