YANGON, MYANMAR - It all started with the death of a goat.
When Bangladeshi journalist Abdul Latif Morol was arrested two weeks ago, his case made headlines because of the absurdity of the circumstances.
A senior official had donated livestock to residents in a rural part of Khulna, southwest of the capital, Dhaka. But one of the goats died. Morol, a correspondent for the Daily Probaho, took to Facebook to pithily report the given by state minister in the morning dies in the evening.”
He was accused by a pro-government newspaper correspondent of defaming the official under Section 57 of Bangladesh’s Information and Communications Technology Act. Although Morol received bail, the case casts a fresh spotlight on the increased use of the law against journalists and the shrinking space for media freedom in Bangladesh.
Journalists arrested under 'Section 57' law
At least 25 journalists have been accused of violating Section 57 since March 1, according to the Bangladeshi newspaper The Daily Star. The section provides for a maximum prison sentence of up to 14 years for a variety of offenses committed online, including defamation, hurting religious sentiment, and tarnishing the image of the state or an individual.
The Editors’ Council released a statement last month calling for it to be repealed, and prominent figures in Bangladesh’s media scene have spoken out against the provision.
“Section 57 of the ICT Act is a serious problem. It contains draconian provisions that apply to anyone publishing online, which is all of us,” said Zafar Sobhan, the editor of the Dhaka Tribune.
He added, however, that even if the government got rid of the law, which has been proposed, there are other pieces of legislation that could be used to crack down on journalists.
Confusion over what is allowed
While the goat incident was “especially silly,” Sobhan said, “it points to a fundamental problem: that no one knows what is within bounds and what is not.”
Iftekhar Zaman, the executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh, said the law contradicted constitutional guarantees as well as international commitments to freedom of expression.
“A quick look at the cases and the manner in which the provision has so far been used will show how arbitrarily and purposefully it has been used more often than not,” he said. “Hence, it must be scrapped. History is replete with examples of how such controls of fundamental freedoms turn out to be counterproductive in the long run even for the proponents of such measures.”
Rights agencies have criticized Bangladesh
The trend is occurring at a difficult time for journalists in Bangladesh. Amnesty International documented the harsher environment in a May report, citing incidents of legal and physical harassment of journalists, loss of advertising due to alleged pressure from authorities, and self-censorship when reporting on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and the ruling Awami League government, which was reelected in 2014 in a vote boycotted by the opposition.
The restrictions are also occurring amid resurgent Islamic fundamentalism that has led to the death of at least six bloggers, writers and activists since 2013, and which culminated in the July 2016 attack on Dhaka’s Holey Artisan Bakery that killed more than 20 people. Militants tied to the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack.
In addition, rights groups point to allegations of secret detentions and enforced disappearances, some of them involving opposition members and activists. Last month Human Rights Watch said there were 48 reported disappearances in the first five months of 2017.
Bangladesh government denies limits on media freedom
Hasina’s government has generally dismissed criticism related to rights abuses and media clampdowns, and she was quoted in October last year saying “there is enough freedom for journalism in Bangladesh right now.” Last month the prime minister defended Section 57 and urged caution against its misuse, saying it wasn’t meant to be deployed against journalists, The Daily Star reported.
But considered together the problems facing Bangladesh suggest a shrinking democratic space, which applies to the practice of journalism.
“Media freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, there’s a link to the state of democracy,” said Badiul Majumdar, the Secretary of Citizens for Good Governance.
And the media often finds itself in the middle.
“We are extremely critical of Islamist extremism and have spoken out strongly against misuse of religion, but we have to be cautious. We don’t want to take unnecessary risks. On the flip-side, we also need to be careful what we say about the government and law enforcement. Some criticism is acceptable, but there are definitely lines one cannot cross and no-go areas,” said Sobhan, the Dhaka Tribune editor-in-chief.
“My job is to push as hard as we can given the existing limitations and sensitivities, to know what can be said and what cannot. But the goal posts are always moving and so it is not an easy task,” he added. “At the same time, one can’t simply take the safe route, as then we would be doing our readers a disservice, and who would read such a newspaper, anyway?”