Bangladeshi activists hold the photos of activists, writers and bloggers who were murdered by unidentified assassins in the last few years, in Dhaka on June 15, 2016. (Photo credit: Munir Uz ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
By Drew McLachlan
Journalists and other media workers in Bangladesh are enjoying “maximum freedom” to cover the news despite a recent international report finding otherwise, a journalist-turned-government spokesperson from the country said.
Nadeem Qadir, who worked as a journalist for 26 years before becoming minister of press for the Bangladesh High Commission in London, said that the government has taken “extraordinary measures” to ensure journalists are not threatened or killed by Islamist and other militant groups.
His statement follows the release of the Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index, which found that reporters in India, Bangladesh and Britain are less free to hold power to account than they were in 2015.
The 2017 index, released on April 26, paints a damning picture of the safety and ability of journalists in south Asia to carry out their duties.
Falling two ranks this year, from 144 to 146 out of 180 countries, reporters in Bangladesh are now considered the least free in the region.
Qadir said he was “quite surprised” to see Bangladesh fall in ranking this year, claiming that more media outlets had opened in the country over the past year and that an increasing number of people had decided to pursue journalism.
“The government has taken extraordinary measures to ensure these things are under control.”
He told Eastern Eye: “Over the last year, since the attack on the (Holey Artisan Bakery) café in Dhaka, the government has taken extraordinary measures to ensure these things are under control.
“You can’t uproot them totally, but at the moment there are no pressing threats to journalists or media people, including bloggers. At the moment things are calm and under control.”
Though the Committee to Protect Journalism (CPJ) did not report the murder of any journalists last year, 2015 saw five journalists killed on separate occasions. All five murders were connected to religious fundamentalist groups.
The most high-profile instance involved Avijit Roy, a secular author and blogger who was stabbed to death while leaving a book fair in Dhaka with his wife on February 26, 2015.
A frequent target of death threats, Roy regularly covered issues such as atheism, homosexuality and free expression from the US, where he was a naturalised citizen.
Along with murders committed by Islamist groups, which RSF describes as enjoying “systematic impunity” for their actions, journalists in Bangladesh are also coming under increasing pressure from the government to arrest all criticism.
Last year saw several lawsuits brought against journalists by prime minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League, which has become increasingly hostile towards the media in its official statements.
Qadir dismissed the idea that those who carried out or planned the murders are not being duly punished.
“Most of the people behind the killings have been identified and arrested and their trials are underway,” he said. “No one has got impunity; that is wrong. Every day there have been arrests, people have faced trial, extremist groups have been asked to behave themselves or face consequences – all of this is taking place. It is not an easy task; it takes a little time.”
Although similar killings in the past have seen mixed outcomes for the perpetrators, the trials for the five murdered in 2015 are still ongoing – the results are yet to be seen.
India: controlling the national debate
India fell three ranks, from 133 to 136 out of 180 countries, with authors warning of the dire effect that “Hindu nationalists” have had on the country’s press.
The index characterised such nationalists as “trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate” and stated that “journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals”.
Although RSF uses the ambiguous term “Hindu nationalists”, Hindustan Times associate editor Jatin Gandhi pointed to the Rashitriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a hardline Hindu volunteer organisation regarded as the parent organisation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Prime minister Narendra Modi was once a full-time worker for the group.
Speaking to Eastern Eye, Gandhi said threats of violence from the RSS, which are typically sent over Twitter and other social media platforms, have greatly increased since the BJP came to power.
“(Journalists) are targeted for reporting on something or carrying out a news story or having a set of views which they find difficult to digest,” he said.
“They have armies of trolls – some of whom are paid trolls and others are influenced by their ideology – who, in a nutshell, can make life miserable for journalists, at least in the short term.
“I can’t say they didn’t exist under the previous government, but the right-wing Hindu fundamentalists have got a party they support in power, so they are emboldened by the fact these people are in power.”
“They have armies of trolls… who can make life miserable for journalists.”
Despite his connection to the group, Modi has previously expressed the importance of a free press in India.
In a statement released on World Press Freedom Day last Wednesday (3), the prime minister said: “World Press Freedom Day is a day to reiterate our unwavering support to the freedom of the media, say it is essential in democracy.
“In today’s day and age, social media has emerged as an active medium of engagement and has added more vigour to press freedom.”
Authors of the index also criticised sedition laws, which could result in journalists receiving life imprisonment for criticising the government. While it notes that no journalists have convicted of sedition yet, the overhanging threat “encourages self-censorship”.
“Obviously, readers will get to know less and less of the truth,” Gandhi said. “Self-censorship is an extreme measure that a journalist or journalistic organisation will take to prevent harm to itself. In such times, the truth is even more important than it is in times of peace.
“Self-censorship is a self-defeating practice.”
The Indian government has also acquired the power to issue closure orders of up to 30 days to media companies without authorisation of a judge, which it took advantage of in November to suspend news channel NDTV for 24 hours, following its coverage of a terrorist attack on a military base in the northern state of Punjab.
Although India is still considered the freest country in the region, the number of threats made against journalists has increased since the BJP came to power. During a 2016 broadcast on whether India has become intolerant of dissent, one guest referred to a pamphlet that called the Hindu deity Durga a sex worker. Though the host did not make the remarks, the Associated Press reported that she was accused of disparaging the deity and was bombarded with more than 2,500 threatening calls.
Pakistan: self-censorship on the rise
Pakistan is the only south Asian country to see improvement over the past year, moving from 147 to 139, in part due to the number of fatal attacks on journalists dropping each year for the past four years.
2016 was the first period in 15 years during which no journalists were murdered “because of journalistic work”, according to CPJ, though the organisation notes that at least three reporters were killed last year while on dangerous assignments.
The most egregious attacks on press freedom, the index stated, come from Islamist organisations, extremist groups and the “feared intelligence agencies”.
Pakistan’s Inter-service Intelligence, along with the Taliban, are both listed on RSF’s Predators Gallery, which lists the individuals and groups most hostile to journalists.
Britain: ‘a heavy-handed approach towards the press’
The new law allows law enforcement to collect, store and analyse personal communications without reasonable suspicion and hack into the personal devices of journalists without notifying authorities, among other new surveillance powers.
Authors described the Investigatory Powers Act as “the most extreme surveillance legislation in UK history”, adding that it contains “insufficient protection mechanisms for whistleblowers, journalists, and their sources, posing a serious threat to investigative journalism”.