On July 5th, the media freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) branded 37 heads of state as “predators of press freedom” who “crack down massively on press freedom.” One of them was Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh’s prime minister. Hasina is a new entrant on the list. Five years ago, when the list was last published, she was not named.
And just to prove RSF’s point — to illustrate the level of press restrictions in the country — not a single newspaper or media outlet in Bangladesh published the news of Hasina’s entry on this media freedom shame list.
Would any editor dare in today’s Bangladesh?
Along with the 36 other “predators”, Sheikh Hasina is described by RSF as a head of government who “trample[s] on press freedom by creating a censorship apparatus, jailing journalists arbitrarily or inciting violence against them…”
RSF goes on to say that: “Each of these predators has their own style. Some impose a reign of terror by issuing irrational and paranoid orders. Others adopt a carefully constructed strategy based on draconian laws.”
So what is Hasina’s style?
“Although she claims to respect press freedom, her hold on power has been buttressed ever since by a refusal to tolerate any criticism,” the press freedom organisation noted. “The Digital Security Act (DSA) adopted in 2018 has rounded off the arsenal that her government uses to impose her views. Packed with deliberately vague wording, it is the ultimate weapon for getting journalists to censor themselves.”
In October 2018, Sheikh Hasina said, “Journalists who do not publish false news need not worry about the DSA.” However, RSF says DSA allows the government to determine which news story is “true” and which one is “false”.
The report goes on to add: “The Digital Security Act enables Sheikh Hasina’s supporters to harass all journalists and bloggers who annoy the authorities. […] The supporters of Sheikh Hasina’s party, the Awami League, and its student branch, the Chhatra League, serve as her enforcers in the field, harassing and attacking reporters to prevent them from covering streets protests or any form of unrest, especially during elections, sometimes acting as virtual lynch mobs. Journalists often end up in hospital and, in some cases, in the morgue.”
RSF could have added how Sheikh Hasina’s government blocks or threatens dissident or critical news websites; hacks Facebook pages of social media commentators; and, seeks to take down YouTube channels based abroad. Netra News has also in recent columns reported on media censorship through political and corporate ownership of TV stations and newspapers in the country.
The more independent-minded newspapers – though no television station, and there are this only applies to a very few newspapers – do often publish news of reports published by organisations like Transparency International or Human Rights Watch which are critical of the government or the Awami League, so it is interesting to consider why media outlets in Bangladesh did not cover this RSF report (though a few outlets published a press release from a pro-government journalists union condemning RSF, without giving out any details).
The most likely explanation is that the report specifically mentions Sheikh Hasina by name as a “predator”. This is reminiscent of how during the Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s tenure between 2001-2006, newspapers seldom directed criticism at Tarique Rahman – the son of Khaleda Zia, the then Bangladesh Nationalist Party prime minister — but against the Hawa Bhaban, the building where the party operated from.
The media silence also may reflect how the cult of personality which the government has developed around Hasina’s father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s independence leader, has now extended towards his daughter. No one dares criticise her directly in the media.
One must wonder, how long will it be before the Digital Security Act, which currently criminalises “negative propaganda” against her father allowing up to 14 years imprisonment on conviction, is amended to criminalise criticism of Sheikh Hasina as well?
Media freedom and freedom of expression in general is crucial for the development of Bangladesh — to root out political and financial corruption, to stymie growing authoritarianism and for the development of democracy. With the Awami League requiring media suppression to ensure its hold on power, it would seem that Sheikh Hasina will remain a “predator of press freedom” for some time to come.●
David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.