Editorial Notes

Journalism can't thrive under digital siege: Daily Star

The paper says authorities need to take measures that actually empower the journalists both in the digital sphere and in their professions on the ground.

People shop at a market in Dhaka on April 3, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

DHAKA (THE DAILY STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - We're deeply worried about the total lack of concern being shown to the continued slide in the state of press freedom, and generally the freedom of expression, in Bangladesh.

This has been reflected, most recently, in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day on May 3. Bangladesh, unsurprisingly and quite in keeping with its record over the past decade, has put up a dismal performance as it ranked 162nd out of 180 countries and territories. This marks a 10-point slide from last year, when Bangladesh ranked 152nd, while its score-36.63-is the lowest among all South Asian countries.

While this is more or less predictable by now, there are important takeaways from our latest showing, including how social media has replaced traditional media as the new frontier of censorship and journalist repression.

The role of social media in endangering journalists-which has been recognised in this year's Press Freedom Day theme of "Journalism Under Digital Siege"-cannot be emphasised enough. To that end, Bangladesh offers a "successful" template.

Between Jan 2020 and Feb 2022, more than 200 journalists have been implicated under the Digital Security Act (DSA). There have been instances of involuntary disappearance and pretrial detention as well. Editors and media managers have repeatedly blamed the authorities for weaponising the DSA to turn the heat on journalists, so that they are forced to toe the official line.

The problem is, DSA doesn't need to be weaponised-it is already the weapon. It's replete with vague terms. Most of its sections are also non-bailable, which means the accused, as guilty until proven innocent, faces an uneven road to justice. Few of those sued under the law have been convicted, however, indicating that the main purpose of this law is not to guide or judge but to intimidate. In other words, a culture of fear has been created through this law.

Bangladesh's score in the Press Freedom Index was 57 in 2011. In 2022, it stands at 36.63. Its score in the democracy index in 2011 was 60. In 2022, it stands at 39. Clearly, our slide in press freedom and democracy has been simultaneous, and we cannot expect improvements in either if the authorities are not respectful of people's voices and fundamental rights.

Unfortunately, instead of trying to improve our scores in these vital indexes, the authorities have recently drafted new laws to regulate personal data, mass media, social media and over-the-top (OTT) media services which, if enacted, will put journalists, critics, rights defenders and even ordinary people at a greater risk.

We urge the authorities to turn away from this dangerous road, and take measures that actually empower the journalists both in the digital sphere and in their professions on the ground.

  • The Daily Star is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.