Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech, including for the press, but the government sometimes failed to respect this right. There were significant limitations on freedom of speech. Some journalists self-censored their criticisms of the government due to harassment and fear of reprisal.
Freedom of Expression: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment.
The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, which permits the government broad powers of interpretation. The government may restrict speech deemed to be against the security of the state; against friendly relations with foreign states; and against public order, decency, or morality; or that constitutes contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to an offense. The Foreign Donation Act criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies. The 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act (ICTA) references defamation of individuals and organizations and was used to prosecute opposition figures and civil society.
As of November, Khaleda Zia had secured bail in 34 of 36 cases against her on issues such as corruption, violence, and sedition. She remained in prison because she had not received bail in two other pending cases.
Press and Media Freedom: Both print and online independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views; however, media outlets that criticized the government experienced negative government pressure.
The government maintained editorial control over the Bangladesh public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge. Civil society said political interference influenced the licensing process, since all television channel licenses granted by the government were for stations supporting the ruling party.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities, including intelligence services on some occasions, and student affiliates of the ruling party, subjected journalists to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation, especially during the August student road safety protests.
On July 22, editor of Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, was physically assaulted following court proceedings in a defamation case regarding his comments about the prime minister and her niece. A recording of the incident shows police standing by while Mahmudur was attacked. An investigation had not taken place by the end of the year.
According to BDnews24.com, on August 4, a group of approximately 12 journalists, including Associated Press photojournalist AM Ahad, was attacked by unidentified individuals near Dhaka City College while covering student traffic safety protests. AM Ahad suffered severe injuries to his legs, and attackers also broke his camera. The information minister requested an investigation into the attack.
Reporters without Borders (RSF) reported 23 journalists, including Shahidul Alam, were attacked while reporting on student traffic safety protests on August 5. In a Skype interview with al-Jazeera on August 4, Alam discussed the student protests and subsequently described attacks on the student protestors on his personal Facebook page. The next day Alam was arrested for making “provocative comments.” When Alam was brought to the court on August 6, he appeared unable to walk unassisted and showed visible signs of injury (see section 1.c.) Alam was charged under the ICTA, which criminalize the publication of material that “tends to deprave and corrupt” its audience, causes a “deterioration in law and order,” or “prejudices the image of the state or a person.” After multiple bail hearing postponements, the High Court granted Alam bail, and he was released on November 20. The government filed an appeal of the bail order. Alam’s trail proceedings recommenced on December 11, but they were subsequently postponed to 2019. Domestic and international NGOs consider the case against Alam to be politically motivated.
A top Dhaka Metropolitan Police official reported the government gathered details on approximately 100 social media accounts, which they claimed incited violence during student traffic safety protests by spreading provocative content. It was difficult to obtain reliable counts on the total number of those arrested, detained, released, or disappeared in conjunction with either the April through May quota protests or the August student traffic safety protests. Reports varied in the media. Families of the detained held press conferences to encourage the government to acknowledge their family members were being held in custody.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists alleged intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well. RSF alleged media self-censorship is growing due to “endemic violence” against journalists and media outlets, and the “almost systematic impunity enjoyed by those responsible.”
Privately owned newspapers, however, usually enjoyed freedom to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship remained a problem.
In September parliament passed the Digital Security Act (DSA), claiming it was intended to reduce cybercrimes. Human rights groups, journalists, media outlets, and political opposition parties denounced the DSA as intended to suppress freedom and criminalize free speech. The DSA provides for sentences of up to 10 years imprisonment for spreading “propaganda” against the Bangladesh Liberation War, the national anthem, or the national flag. Human rights organizations criticized the DSA as restricting freedom of expression.
The government penalized media that criticized the government or broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements. During the August student traffic protests, the government blocked internet connections to limit the ability of the protesters to organize. Television stations reported that they were “asked” by government officials not to broadcast reports of the students on the streets.
According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship, due to fear of security force retribution and the possibility of being charged with politically motivated cases. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.
Some international media outlets reported delays and difficulties in obtaining visas. A government-managed film censorship board reviewed local and foreign films and had the authority to censor or ban films on the grounds of state security, law and order, religious sentiment, obscenity, foreign relations, defamation, or plagiarism, but it was less strict than in the past.
Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and LGBTI writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations. In May a LGBTI rights activist expressed fear about organizing the LGBTI community in the country, as formal organization would require the disclosure to the government of LGBTI activists’ identities, making them potential targets for government monitoring and harassment.
The government restricted and disrupted access to the internet and censored online content in isolated incidents. The government prohibited Virtual Private Networks and Voice Over Internet Protocol telephone but rarely enforced this prohibition.
In several incidents the government interfered in internet communications, filtered or blocked access, restricted content, and censored websites or other communications and internet services. It suspended or closed many websites based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content being in violation of legal requirements.
The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is charged with the regulation of telecommunications. It carries out law enforcement and government requests to block content by ordering internet service providers to take action. The BTRC filtered internet content the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs. In 2016 the BTRC carried out a directive to block 35 news websites that had published material critical of the government and political leaders who were perceived to feature overt support for political opposition groups. Many of the sites remained blocked.
The ICTA criminalizes the posting online of inflammatory or derogatory information against the state or individuals. Opponents of the law said it unconstitutionally restricted freedom of speech. The government used the ICTA and threat of sedition charges, which carry a possible death penalty, to limit online activity and curtail freedom of expression online. The Digital Security Act (DSA) was passed on September 19. Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Mustafa Jabbar said on September 15 that section 57 of the ICTA would be removed by the passage of the bill; however, much of section 57 was incorporated into the final DSA law.
According to nongovernmental organization Article 19, the government arrested at least 87 individuals under section 57 of the ICTA from January to August. According to Odhikar, in August, 22 individuals were charged under the ICTA for allegedly providing “false” information or “spreading rumors” deemed to be against the state through Facebook and social media during the road safety protest movement.
On June 18, the bdnews24 website was blocked for several hours by the BTRC without an official explanation. According to independent journalists, a report written by the media outlet contained a paragraph about the offer of presidential clemency and release from prison of the brother of the recently appointed army chief. The paragraph was removed and the newspaper portal later unblocked.
The BTRC blocked the Daily Star’s website on June 2, following a June 1 article reporting on extrajudicial killing in Cox’s Bazar. On December 9, the BTRC also blocked 58 various news portals’ websites affiliated with political opposition parties (see section 1.a.).
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported in 2017 that approximately 18 percent of the population uses the internet. The BTRC reported approximately 90 million internet subscriptions in September, including an estimated 85 million mobile internet subscriptions (one individual may have more than one subscription).
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, authorities discouraged research on sensitive religious and political topics that might fuel possible religious or communal tensions. Academic publications on the 1971 independence war were also subject to scrutiny and government approval.