Bangladesh: The consequence of dissent
By ELEANOR HARRIN
There are few states which rival the media censorship of Russia, a nation which proclaims that independent outlets are “foreign agents” pedalling myths of the Russo-Ukrainian War. However, Reporters Without Borders places Bangladesh seven places below the superpower in their 2022 Press Freedom Index; this past month has highlighted exactly why.
On 20 February, the printing press of Bangladesh’s main opposition newspaper fell silent. Dainik Dinkal gave voice to the Bangladesh Nationalist party (BNP) and, more importantly, the journalists who strove to escape the corruption of the pro-government media. Articles were released which glorified protests whilst challenging Hasina’s policy and conduct. In retaliation, the paper’s printing permit was suspended by the Ministry of Information after it allegedly breached publication laws.
Underneath this pretence of illegality was a blatant attack on pluralism. A political vendetta was launched against Dainik Dinkal when the authorities refused to accept that a new publisher of the paper had been appointed. The former publisher, Tariq Rahman, was residing abroad, which placed the paper in direct violation of the law. The BNP chairman fled to the United Kingdom after ‘false lawsuits’ were filed against him and his wife. The validity of these claims is unknown. However, issuing arrest warrants which would forever drive powerful, dissenting voices from politics is in keeping with the clear suppression of opposition within the media.
Another alarming development from the past month assumes the form of a government bill seeking to close 191 news websites for “conducting activities that spread confusion among the public”, when these activities were merely expressions of disapproval against Hasina.
The internet is an invaluable tool in promoting freedom of speech. It grants journalists anonymity, few regulations and a wide reach. It also allows citizens to access information outside state sponsored media sources. Thus, this planned intervention by the government of Bangladesh (the Awami League) is undoubtedly worrying: the nation’s suppression of dissent is now reaching unprecedented levels.
It is important to explore the origins of censorship in Bangladesh. The government has continuously fought against the media ever since the Liberation War of 1971. Prior to the advent of democracy, the production of underground pamphlets was fuelled by the marital law and corrupt dictatorship of General Ershad. Within the mainstream media, journalists would frequently be censured before a similar article was immediately published - this was a glorified game of cat and mouse.
Democracy did not bring a newfound appreciation of the press. The past decade has been littered by not only censorship, but also persistent attacks against writers by representatives and supporters of the Awami League. Seven serious attacks have been filed by Reporters Without Borders in the past two months alone. One such incident involved the head of the government’s youth wing strangling Zahurul Islam, a newspaper reporter, after being questioned at a press conference. Hasina is hiding the hallmarks of a dictatorship behind the façade of a democracy.
However, whilst the citizens of Bangladesh are being silenced by a culture of fear and oppression, the Awami League is being held to account by international powers. On International Human Rights Day in 2021, Biden levied sanctions against an elite unit of the Bangladesh police force known as the Rapid Action Battalion. He explicitly held the organisation “responsible for more than 600 disappearances since 2009, nearly 600 extrajudicial killings since 2018, and torture”. This policy proved highly effective: the 2023 Human Rights Watch World Report has revealed a decline in the numbers of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings. Hasina is aware that the rest of the world is watching, aware that her regime is being judged upon this erosion of liberty.
Despite these improvements, the censorship of the media is far from over and the West only has a limited capacity to act. Even after being offered refuge abroad, journalists continue to face intimidation from the government. Family members living in Bangladesh are threatened and arrested, including the sister of Kanak Sarwar (a writer based in the US) and her three children.
To exacerbate the situation further, the calls for reform by the Bangladesh National Party are empty promises. Whilst in opposition, both the BNP and Awami League have advocated for the government to loosen its grip on the media. However, once in power, this grasp is firmly tightened.
Censorship has tormented Bangladesh’s past and will undoubtedly continue to shape its future.
Image: Unsplash/ Sadman Nafis