“If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.”
~John Stuart Mill, Philosopher
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Bangladesh ranks 151 in 2020 out of 180 countries, thus falling five places in the World Press Freedom Index this year. Many Bangladeshi and international organizations have written to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asking her to take concrete actions in guaranteeing journalistic freedom. Journalists and cartoonists have been facing an alarming surge in physical and judicial attacks with relation to the Covid-19 crisis.
These organizations have also called upon the head of the government to amend the controversial and abusive Digital Security Act and draft a law which would provide protection for journalists and free speech. Given the very disturbing number of press freedom violations particularly in recent weeks, it is feared that the country could fall further in the index next year.
What is this infamous Digital Security Act? To get an idea, this is what Amnesty International stated in 2018:
“Bangladesh’s new Digital Security Act is an attack on freedom of expression that is even more repressive than the legislation it has replaced. The vague and overly broad provisions of the new law could be used to intimidate and imprison journalists and social media users, silence dissent and carry out invasive forms of surveillance.The Digital Security Act criminalizes many forms of expression and imposes heavy fines and prison sentences for legitimate forms of dissent. It is incompatible with international law and standards and should be amended immediately.”
Needless to say, not only has the Bangladesh government not amended the Act immediately, it has vigorously ramped up the violence used in enforcing it.
Very recently on July 1, 2020, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published an article titled Bangladesh: Repeal Abusive Law Used in Crackdown on Critics. In this article, HRW states that the “Bangladesh authorities are using the abusive Digital Security Act to harass and indefinitely detain activists, journalists and others critical of the government and its political leadership.”
Brad Adams, the Asia director of Human Rights Watch states: “At a time when the government should be reducing the prison population to protect against the spread of Covid-19, they are locking people up simply for their comments on social media.”
In June 2020, Bangladeshi authorities investigated 5 journalists and detained 2 under the Digital Security Act. Their crime was “Covid-19 reporting.” This can be understood to mean that those investigated and detained were simply commenting on what the public already knew: that there is mass corruption by the ruling party leaders and goons with respect to the pandemic-related funds and food supplies. Should anyone dare to speak the truth about the ground realities, he/she falls within the shackles of the notorious Digital Security Act. Even a 15 year old was not spared and arrested for criticizing Sheikh Hasina on Facebook.
Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) has also expressed deep concern over the recent attacks, threats, lawsuits, intimidation and jail sentences against concerned citizens in the name of the Act. The victims of these injustices simply want to talk about the corruption and irregularities they experience via the news, cartoons, photographs and social media posts. It is not as though their observations and comments are based on falsehoods. They are truthfully revealing the irregularities in the healthcare system and relief distribution during the pandemic. They are wrongfully convicted on the false grounds of spreading rumors, providing wrong information, criticizing the government (a fundamental right guaranteed in any nation which wants to be taken seriously as a democracy), defamation, etc.
This year alone, there have been 50 cases of detentions under the Digital Security Act, according to TIB. Since the beginning of the Act in 2018, 180 journalists have been sued. In 2019, 38 journalists have been victims of lawsuits, harassment and arrests.
The statistics are haunting and the motive is clear. Such draconian measures to punish efforts at transparency and accountability can only mean that things are not right at all and that the state is attempting at all costs to keep a tight lid on the grave and unethical wrongs. But, the lid is consistently thrown away by journalists, writers and ordinary citizens who want to report the truth about the ills committed by the abusive ruling party in Bangladesh.
The Awami League should wake up and realize that their strategy following Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda who said, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes accepted as the truth” is not working any longer. It has not worked in years and will not do so in the future.
Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League stands on crutches without any public support. Well, at least not the kind of public which wants to live with dignity in a state which provides the support system and pride that is constitutionally their right. It has come to the point where even a staunch Awami League publication, Prothom Alo’s viewpoint is that the party does not have any answers any longer for its misdeeds. That is absolutely accurate.
How can it provide answers? There are so many overlapping falsehoods building up for decades that perhaps even the powers that be cannot recall which untruth it has told and when.
Voltaire said, “I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it.” It is much too late for the Awami League to even begin this path. The public support is lost, to say the least.
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