Freedom of expression in Bangladesh has been a constant feature of our nation’s recent political history.
In the recent past, the global media and organizations at the national front, as well as in the international arena are agog on the issue of freedom of expression.
The international bodies including United Nations, foreign embassies, and human rights groups did not hesitate to be outspoken critics of the state of freedom of expression and also the status of press freedom in Bangladesh.
Well, a section of pro-government intellectuals and news organizations promptly blasted the national and international organizations for damaging the image of the country.
The ruling Awami League and the government agencies rebuked the organizations raising the issue of freedom of expression as a conspiracy against the country, which the authorities describe that freedom and democracy are running parallel and media is enjoying wide freedom.
Frankly speaking, they do not have enough information, nor do they understand the parameters of freedom of expression to counter the global outrage over the draconian laws which is shrinking the space for freedom of expression.
When the election is around the corner in January 2024, the government is poised to promulgate yet another law Telecommunication Regulatory Commission Regulation For Digital, Social Media, and OTT Platforms.
Similarly, the government months before the 2018 parliament elections passed the repressive Digital Security Act.
The cyber security law incorporates blasphemy, defamation and secrecy act which contradict democracy, secularism, and pluralism.
The notorious Digital Security Act (DSA) criminalizes the right to freedom of expression, dissent and critiquing the authority in any digital format. The worst victims were journalists, opposition politicians and netizens (social media users).
Politicians and journalists ranked the highest and were neck-to-neck in terms of those accused – at least 287 politicians and 280 journalists.
The draconian law recorded 1,109 cases filed under the DSA, of which around 60 per cent were over Facebook activities. A total of 2,889 individuals were accused, according to a study by the Centre for Governance Studies (CGS).
This study and other activities of CGS invited the state security agencies to haunt Zillur Rahman, executive director of CGS and a volley of criticism by intellectuals and ruling party politicians.
Meanwhile, the members of the global alliance Media Freedom Coalition (MFC) recently participated by envoys of Canada, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Envoys from member countries of the MFC met early this month in the capital Dhaka to launch the MFC’s Diplomatic Network Initiative for their support of press freedom.
The diplomats discussed the current media landscape, including the censoring of online news portals and recent cases of harassment and intimidation of journalists.
The MFC was established in July 2019 at the Global Conference for Media Freedom and now comprises over 50 member states from six continents that have signed the Global Pledge on Media Freedom.
Last week, the United States Ambassador Peter Haas came down heavily at a discussion on “Online Freedom and Business Investment in Bangladesh” which jolted the upper echelons of the Awami League.
He frankly stated the United States government is concerned about the regulations for digital, social media, and over-the-top platforms the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission and the Ministry of Information have introduced, as well as the draft Data Protection Act.
What worries is that the “Data Protection Act, if passed with strict data localization requirements, may force some US companies currently operating in Bangladesh to leave the market.”
The online platform regulations “will similarly dissuade companies from investing in their businesses here, if they face criminal liability for user content.”
The law threatens over 2,000 startup companies to be put out of business, and services that Bangladeshis use millions of times every day could become inaccessible.
The worst of worst came, the statement of Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression was released on 6 February on Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (draft) regulation for digital, social media, and OTT platforms.
Khan categorically said the proposed Data Protection Act is contradictory to Bangladesh’s obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Many of the categories of prohibited content in the draft Regulation are vaguely defined. Such broad and vague definitions as “racially or ethnically objectionable”, “offensive, false, or threatening and insulting or humiliating” or “hurts religious values or sentiment” are well beyond the restrictions permitted by international law.
Such clauses will encourage the removal of content by intermediaries as well as self-censorship among users, thereby having a direct chilling effect on freedom of expression, she observed in her report.
She urged the Bangladesh authorities to provide feedback on how the Digital, Social Media, and OTT Platforms Regulation is consistent with the obligations under international human rights law, especially the requirements of the Covenant.
Will the authority respond to the observation of Special Rapporteur Irene Khan? Bangladesh does not have the culture to respond to queries from international bodies.