Freedom House (Autor)
Bangladesh remained under emergency rule for much of 2008, governed by a military-backed caretaker administration until national elections were held on December 29. Media restrictions imposed after the military takeover in January 2007 were rescinded only at the end of 2008. 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 charged with contempt of court and defamation or arrested under the 1974 Special Powers Act—which allows detentions of up to 90 days without trial—in reprisal for stories that are critical of government officials or policies. The Emergency Powers Rules, announced in January 2007, 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. These rules were unevenly enforced in 2008 and lifted altogether on December 17.
Some of the journalists who had been arrested in early 2007 remained in custody in 2008, including Mohammad Atiqullah Khan Masud, editor of the national daily Janakantha. Others, such as Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, who was first arrested in 2003, still face sedition, treason, and blasphemy charges. However, cartoonist Arifur Rahman, who was jailed in September 2007 for allegedly insulting Islam through a cartoon depicting a cat named Mohammad, was released in March 2008 after a judge ruled that his continued detention was illegal. In a positive legal development, the government in October approved a Right to Information Ordinance that was welcomed by local and international advocacy groups. The ordinance, intended to improve transparency, would apply to all information held by public bodies, simplify the fees required to access information, override existing secrecy legislation, and grant greater independence to the Information Commission that was tasked with overseeing and promoting the law, according to the press freedom group Article 19.
Despite occasional cases of censorship, the print media were generally allowed more leeway than broadcasters and new media, particularly private television channels that provide 24-hour news coverage. However, military intelligence officials did reportedly monitor media content, and in 2008 they started giving regular guidance to both print and broadcast media about which stories should be covered or avoided. With the pre-election lifting of the State of Emergency and the repeal of restrictions on freedom of expression in mid-December, “print and broadcast media covered the elections extensively and for the most part equitably,” according to the European Union Election Observation Mission (EU-EOM). The EU, furthermore, concluded that the media “enjoyed a reasonable degree of freedom of expression with no reported instances of intimidation or violence against journalists.” Coverage by the state-owned media was judged “neutral in tone.”
Although journalists have traditionally faced pressure from a range of actors, including organized crime groups, political parties and their supporters, and leftist and Islamist militant groups, no journalists have been killed in the past two years and the overall level of violence has declined. The main threat to journalists’ physical safety in 2008 came from official sources: the police, security forces, and military intelligence. Police brutality toward reporters or photographers attempting to document political protests or other sensitive events remained a concern. On dozens of occasions, journalists were detained, threatened, or otherwise harassed by the authorities. Particularly severe cases of arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, and custodial torture include those of Tasneem Khalil in 2007 and Noor Ahmed in 2008. Journalists also reported an increase in threatening telephone calls and other forms of intimidation from intelligence agencies seeking to influence coverage. The fear of repercussions caused many journalists to practice increasing self-censorship when covering sensitive topics. Impunity for those who perpetrate crimes against journalists is the norm, and investigations of such crimes generally proceed 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 outlets presenting views that were critical of the government faced sustained pressure. Private broadcasting has expanded in recent years, with ten satellite television stations and three radio stations now operating. The state owns or influences several broadcast media outlets, and private outlets are required to air selected government-produced news segments. Political considerations influence the distribution of government advertising revenue and subsidized newsprint, on which many publications depend. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the arrest of several media owners and executives as part of a larger anticorruption drive that began in 2007 served to weaken several outlets financially, as it deprived them of their main backers.Access to the internet, although generally unrestricted, is limited to less than 1 percent of the population. Some journalists’ e-mail is reportedly monitored by police, and those brought in for questioning have been asked to supply personal internet passwords to intelligence officers.