SRINAGAR, INDIA - Bangladesh's Digital Security Act is hastening the country's decline in press freedom, with authorities using the legislation to jail journalists and others who are critical of the government and its response to the coronavirus pandemic, local media and analysts say.
In 2020 alone, the law was used to charge around 900 people, including several journalists, according to Amnesty International.
Bangladesh's information minister, Hasan Mahmud, has said in interviews that the act is needed to protect people online. But rights groups and local journalist associations say the Digital Security Act and other laws, including the Official Secrets Act that was used to detain an investigative reporter in May, are adding to pressures for journalism.
Kamal Ahmed, a Dhaka-based freelance journalist, said that even before the widely criticized law was passed in 2018, the country was on a downhill trajectory.
The space for critical journalism has been shrinking along with a distrust in the election process, following a 2013 vote boycotted by the opposition, Ahmed said. The government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has become more authoritarian and intolerant to criticism, which is driving the persecution of the voices of dissent and criticism, he added.
According to media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Hasina's government has "taken a markedly tough line with media." RSF cited the Digital Security Act and prosecutions related to pandemic coverage when it ranked Bangladesh 152 out of 180, where 1 is freest, on its annual press freedom index.
The Center for Governance Studies, an independent Bangladeshi research group, says the Digital Security Act has been used most against opposition politicians, followed closely by journalists.
In an April report, the organization concluded that the law has "disproportionately impacted the journalists" and is an obstacle to press freedom. Its data found "that activists and supporters of the ruling party have been able to create a frightening situation using the law."
Bangladesh's Sampadak Parishad, or Editors' Council, was one of the groups that opposed the law from the start. "Our fear is now a nightmare-reality for the mass media," the council said after arrests of Ahmed Kabir Kishore, a cartoonist, and Mushtaq Ahmed, a writer, in May 2020.
Mushtaq Ahmed was denied bail several times and died in prison on February 25.
His death and the ramping up of prosecutions is leading to calls for the law to be reformed and press freedom to be better protected.
During the pandemic, dozens of journalists who covered corruption or reported on cases of food aid being taken from poorer regions, were hit with legal complaints, said Saleem Samad, an award-winning Dhaka-based journalist. "Those who dared critiquing of the pandemic health care management were also prosecuted under repressive [Digital Security Act]," Samad said.
The act has resulted in widespread self-censorship, especially among the newsroom gatekeepers, Samad said, adding that in-depth stories on corruption and accountability of elected representatives or lawmakers are missing in the media.
Bangladesh's Ministry of Information and Broadcasting did not respond to VOA's emailed requests for comment.
Speaking after the death of Mushtaq Ahmed, Information Minister Mahmud said that he and the government are "cautious ... that no journalist is victimized by misuse of the act." Authorities have also said they are reviewing the law to ensure it cannot be abused.
The Digital Security Act is not the only legislation that media and analysts say is being used to target critical reporting. Journalists can also face charges under the sedition law and Official Secrets Act.
Samad has firsthand experience of this, having being detained for several months on sedition charges while working on a documentary for Britain's Channel 4 Unreported World series in November 2002. The journalist ultimately had to leave the country and said he returned in 2010, only when his case was finally quashed.
More recently, reporter Rozina Islam of the Prothom Alo newspaper was detained under the 1923 Official Secrets Act, following a complaint lodged by a Health Ministry official.
Islam was charged with photographing government papers in violation of the act and penal code. She was detained briefly on May 17 at the Shahbagh police station in Dhaka and could face up to 14 years in prison or even the death penalty if convicted.
Sajjad Sharif, managing editor of Prothom Alo, told VOA the court has granted his reporter bail.
"She is right now admitted in the hospital and is undergoing physiological treatment as she was mentally harassed and traumatized as well during her detention," Sharif said.
Naman Aggarwal, the global digital identity lead and Asia Pacific policy counsel at digital rights organization Access Now, said both the Official Secrets Act and Digital Security Act provide the government with wide powers to contain critical speech under the camouflage of protecting national security or cybersecurity.
The government is able to take down content it deems "fake, obscene, or defaming" or damaging to the state or religious sentiment, and prosecute people based on ambiguous standards, Aggarwal said.
A Bangladeshi reporter based in Dhaka, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VOA that a few years back only a few politicians showed their anger by showing muscle power or via the legal system, but nowadays even high up officials are taking action. "It becomes quite harder to do corruption-related news nowadays," the reporter said.
Mohammad Tauhidul Islam, a special correspondent for the business desk of Maasranga Television, believes that journalists are becoming more cautious. "The journalists are maintaining an undeclared line not to question government high ups." Islam said, who is of no relation to Prothom Alo reporter Rozina Islam.
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington-based research group, told VOA he believes the pressure on media is driven by Dhaka's desire to control public narratives. Authoritarian moves in recent years include efforts to rein in any form of dissent, including from the political opposition and civil society, he said.
To its credit, Bangladesh's media corps has responded with loud and frequent condemnations that run the risk of prompting additional government crackdowns, Kugelman said.
"The media in Bangladesh has not shied away from taking a strong stand on behalf of press freedoms," Kugelman said. "In fact it has been leading from the front in this effort, with press freedom watchdogs abroad adding their support."