A Bangladeshi journalist has been arrested this week after reporting on voting irregularities in recent elections, another victim of Bangladesh’s war against the press. Journalist Hedayet Hossain Mollah was arrested this week under the nation’s new Digital Security Act, which rights groups believe further suppresses press freedoms rather than repeals existing restrictions. Mollah’s imprisonment follows a number of oppressive actions by Bangladesh’s governing party, the Awami League, showing it is an increasingly authoritative regime.
Mollah’s imprisonment is the latest in a series of arrests of media personnel in Bangladesh. Award-winning photojournalist Shahidul Alam was detained in August after giving a critical view of the nation’s regime, both in an Al Jazeera interview and on social media. Additionally, many reporters have faced detention simply for sharing or liking Facebook posts that portray Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a negative light.
Hasina reinforced the Digital Security Act in 2018, after previously promising to repeal its predecessor, Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, in early 2018. The previous ICT Act resulted in people being detained for criticizing the Prime Minister’s policies or clothes, and even for caricaturing her, her relatives, or her colleagues, Human Rights Watch reported. Amnesty International stated that the new act only expands the stipulations of the ICT Act, rather than abandoning and repealing them.
A collection of newspaper editors in Bangladesh, known as the Editors’ Council, formed a human chain in front of the National Press Club when the Act was introduced in October, pressing the government to take India’s stance on freedom of the press under consideration. India’s Supreme Court ruled a similar act “unconstitutional” in 2015, which had reportedly been used to arrest anyone criticizing government on social media or other public platforms. The court ruled that the Act was “so ambiguous and far reaching that it did not withstand the test of constitutionality.”
At least 17 people were killed in Bangladesh’s 2018 elections, alongside mass arrests and suppression of opposition activists. Freedom House rates Bangladesh as “Not Free” – a score of 1/4 in having free and independent media. Their report states that the Awami League retains power through harassment of the opposition, extrajudicial executions, and political oppression. Many opposition leaders are in prison, exile, or under house arrest.
Amnesty International reported in September that the Act imposes dangerous restrictions on freedom of expression and shows a decreasing respect of human rights in an already fragile environment. The media is a crucial feature of any democracy, as it holds the government to account and provides exact and impartial information. Another important branch of government is the court system and its ability to check legislation. India’s annulment of a similar act produced a positive example for Bangladesh to follow. It is crucial that Bangladesh respects its commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights along with other international standards to which the country has formally agreed.
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