Bangladesh | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Bangladesh

Bangladesh

Freedom of the Press 2008

2008 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

68

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

30

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

16

Following worsening political violence and instability in late 2006, which culminated in the postponement of planned elections, the imposition of a state of emergency, and the installation of a new military-backed interim government on January 11, 2007, the environment for media freedom changed considerably, with additional legal restrictions balanced by a decline in murders and violence against members of the press. Although the constitution provides for freedom of expression subject to “reasonable restrictions,” the press is constrained by national security legislation as well as sedition and criminal libel laws. Journalists can be slapped with contempt of court and defamation charges or arrested under the 1974 Special Powers Act (which allows detentions of up to 90 days without trial) in reprisal for filing stories critical of government officials or policies. In February and March, a number of journalists were detained or charged with defamation. Sedition charges were dropped against seven journalists in May, but Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, who was first arrested in 2003, still faces sedition, treason, and blasphemy charges. In September, cartoonist Arifur Rahman was jailed, ostensibly for 30 days, for allegedly insulting Islam through a cartoon depicting a cat named Mohammad. The newspaper that published the cartoon faced protests and temporary suspension, its editors were forced to issue an apology, and Rahman remained in prison at year’s end.

Overt censorship and other instances of heightened restrictions on the media were imposed in the context of the political turmoil early in the year. Immediately following the emergency declaration, television channels were asked to broadcast news produced by the state-run BTV, and all media were requested to refrain from any criticism of the authorities. The Emergency Powers Rules, announced in late January, restricted coverage of sensitive topics, allowed censorship of print and broadcast outlets, criminalized “provocative” criticism of the government, and imposed penalties, including up to five years in prison and hefty fines, for violations. The government was sensitive to international scrutiny; according to the U.S. State Department, on several occasions during the year authorities banned or delayed distribution of foreign magazines such as the Economist, Time, and the regional journal Himal Southasian or removed pages containing articles about Bangladesh before releasing them. Local media content was also monitored, and in general the print media were allowed more leeway than broadcasters and new media, particularly private television channels that provide 24-hour news coverage. During and following the student-led protests in August, authorities asked television channels not to broadcast images of the riots or air live talk shows and assaulted and detained dozens of journalists. In September, the new 24-hour news channel CSB, owned by a former lawmaker and businessman who was detained as part of the government’s anticorruption crackdown, was shut down altogether on a technicality after airing coverage of the August unrest. Other stations were allowed to resume airing talk shows only after repeated appeals by senior journalists and after agreeing to abide by informal guidelines circulated by the information minister that included bans on live, unedited shows, phone-in and interactive segments, and any statements that could create resentment of the government.

Numerous journalists reported an increase in threatening phone calls from intelligence agencies seeking to prevent critical coverage of the new government or military or encouraging editors to file positive stories on certain topics. Some who refused to comply were targeted with reprisal; in March, Atiqullah Khan Masud, editor and publisher of the popular Janakantha daily, was arrested during a high-profile raid on his office and was subsequently accused of corruption, criminal activities, and “tarnishing the country’s image abroad.” The fear of negative repercussions caused many journalists to practice increasing self-censorship when covering sensitive topics.

Journalists continue to be harassed and attacked by a range of actors, including organized crime groups, political parties and their supporters, and leftist and Islamist militant groups, although no journalists were killed in 2007 and the overall level of violence declined. Most commonly, they are subjected to such attacks as a result of their coverage of corruption, criminal activity, Islamic fundamentalism, or human rights abuses. Police brutality toward photographers attempting to document protests or other political events also remained a concern. In August, security forces assaulted and injured several journalists who were covering protests at Dhaka University, temporarily taking several dozen into custody. On a number of other occasions, journalists were threatened or detained by authorities or the security forces. Cases include that of Daily Star reporter E. A. M. Asaduzzaman Tipu, arrested in Nilphamari in March, and Jahangir Alam Akash, a CSB reporter in the northwestern city of Rajshahi, who was arrested and beaten while in custody in October. In a high-profile case that was documented extensively by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Tasneem Khalil, who worked as a journalist for the Daily Star and U.S.-based CNN as well as a researcher for HRW, was detained, tortured, and threatened by the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence in May 2007, primarily regarding his news reporting as well as an HRW report he contributed to that focused on extrajudicial killings by the security forces. After international pressure helped secure his release, Khalil sought asylum in Sweden. Impunity for those who perpetrate crimes against journalists is the norm, and investigations into the cases of reporters killed in previous years generally proceeded slowly, if at all.

With hundreds of daily and weekly publications, the privately owned print media continue to present an array of views, although political coverage at a number of newspapers is highly partisan and those outlets that presented views critical of the new government faced sustained pressure. Private broadcasting has expanded in recent years, with eight satellite television stations and three radio stations now broadcasting. The state owns or influences several broadcast media outlets, and private outlets are required to air selected government-produced news segments as a condition of their operation. Political considerations influence the distribution of government advertising revenue and subsidized newsprint, upon which many publications depend. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the arrest of several media owners and executives as part of an overarching anticorruption drive served to weaken several outlets financially, as it deprived them of their major backers.

Access to the internet, although generally unrestricted, is limited to less than 1 percent of the population, and some journalists’ e-mail is reportedly monitored by police. During and following the August protests, authorities switched off mobile phone networks and routed all internet traffic through the state telecommunications company (leading to a temporary slowdown or shutdown of the internet).