Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution provides for freedom of speech and press, but the government sometimes failed to respect these rights. 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 Speech and Expression: The constitution equates criticism of the constitution with sedition. Punishment for sedition ranges from three years’ to life imprisonment. Several high profile individuals were charged with sedition, including BNP leader Khaleda Zia, TV personality Mahmudur Rahman Manna, and reporter Kanok Sarwar, but the government did not proceed with prosecutions. The law limits hate speech but does not define clearly what constitutes hate speech, leaving the government with 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.
Press and Media Freedoms: 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. For example, independent journalists alleged that intelligence services influenced media outlets in part by withholding financially important government advertising and pressing private companies to withhold their advertising as well.
The government maintains editorial control over the Bangladesh public television station (BTV), and private channels were mandated to air government content at no cost. Civil society said that there was political interference in the licensing process, as 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, subjected journalists to physical attack, harassment, and intimidation. In February, members of the ruling party initiated 79 sedition and defamation cases in multiple courts against Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, for publishing reports of corruption involving Prime Minister Hasina in 2007 and 2008. Hasina publicly stated Anam’s newspaper and its sister media outlet, Prothom Alo, would be punished for publishing the reports.
The government imprisoned several prominent editors affiliated with the BNP, including the arrest of 81-year-old journalist Shafiq Rehman in April on charges relating to his alleged role in a plot to cause harm to Hasina’s son. On September 6, the Supreme Court granted him three-month conditional bail after four and a half months of detention. The government continued to pursue charges against the editor of Amar Desh, Mahmudur Rahman, whom police arrested in 2013 for publishing Skype conversations between the Chairman of the ICT and a private consultant on ICT cases. Although the High Court granted Rahman bail on September 8, the Appellate Court chamber judge stayed his bail until October 30, further prolonging his detention of nearly four years. Rahman was released on bail on November 23.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Privately owned newspapers usually enjoyed broad freedom to carry diverse views. Political polarization and self-censorship in an atmosphere of fear remained a problem, however. The media generally favored one of the two major political parties. Ownership of the media is influenced by politics, and both the government and big businesses used advertising as a weapon to control the media.
The government sought to censor the media indirectly through threats and harassment. On multiple occasions, government officials asked privately owned television channels not to broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements. One talk show host reported overt censorship from Directorate General of Forces Intelligence personnel, who intimidated and threatened the host and the channel until owners finally cancelled the program. When the host continued working on another program, he reported receiving word for word instructions from security forces for behavior on air and being subject to surveillance and death threats via text, letter, and voice messages. The host was ultimately forced to flee the country. The well regarded newspapers Prothom Alo and Daily Star were denied access to prime-ministerial events because they published reports critical of the government and prime minister.
Both the government and businesses used the threat of pulling advertising dollars to pressure the media to avoid unfavorable coverage.
According to some journalists and human rights NGOs, journalists engaged in self-censorship, particularly due to fear of security-force retribution. Although public criticism of the government was common and vocal, some media figures expressed fear of harassment by the government.
The government did not subject foreign publications and films to stringent review and censorship. Some international media outlets reported delays and difficulties in obtaining visas. One television producer reported that the government would only issue a visa if the government were allowed to review and approve their coverage. 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. In January the Bangladesh Censor Board upheld a ban on the movie “Rana Plaza,” originally set to premier in September 2015. The film told the story of a garment factory worker’s 17-day fight to survive under debris following the April 24, 2013 eponymous factory collapse. Video rental libraries and DVD shops stocked a wide variety of films, and government efforts to enforce censorship on rentals were sporadic and ineffective.
The government at times censored objectionable comments regarding national leaders. In April, the government refiled a criminal defamation complaint against news editor Probir Sikder for “tarnishing the image” of a minister.
National Security: In some cases, the government criticized media outlets for reporting that allegedly compromised national security. The prime minister and other government officials criticized local media for their live telecast of government counter terrorism efforts during the July 1 Holey Bakery terrorist attack and, following the incident, the government enacted a blanket ban on live television news coverage of terrorist attack and disaster rescue operations.
Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and LGBTI writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from extremist organizations. Following his inclusion in a “hit list” of 34 individuals published online by Ansar al-Islam (a purported AQIS affiliate) in November 2015, one blogger reported frequent threats via Facebook messenger and persistent surveillance, including an incident in April when four masked individuals with weapons followed him before being scared away by police. On April 7, blogger Najimuddin Samad was killed in Dhaka; investigation into the murder was ongoing.
A journalist at a prominent newspaper reported receiving frequent death threats since September 2015, including from persons claiming affiliation with Da’esh. The journalist reported receiving almost daily text messages with threats and passages from the Quran describing death, such as “consider doomsday as if tomorrow,” and “all will see the Prophet at the graveyard.” Several other outlets experienced similar threats, some of which culminated in bias-based murders.
There were isolated incidents of government restriction and disruption of access to the internet and censorship of online content. Approximately 14.4 percent of the population has access to the internet according to the International Telecommunication Union. The BTRC reported approximately 63.9 million internet subscriptions in July, including roughly 60 million mobile internet subscriptions (one individual may have more than one subscription). Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephony were illegal, but the laws were rarely enforced against individuals.
There were several incidents of government interference in internet communications, filtering or blocking of access, restricting content, and censoring websites or other communications and internet services. Many websites were suspended or closed based on vague criteria, or with explicit reference to their pro-opposition content in violation of legal requirements. The 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. In May the BTRC blocked encrypted communication applications Threema and Wickr as well as several blogs and Facebook posts it deemed to be crafted in “malice to Islam.” The BTRC Chairman later stated that the BTRC only blocks websites or services upon the request of law enforcement or MOHA and does not take independent action to block any websites or services. In July, the BTRC carried out a directive of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police to block 30 websites and Facebook pages for allegedly inciting militancy or running anti-religion propaganda. On August 2, the BTRC initiated a temporary shutdown of internet and mobile telephone services in a section of Dhaka city. BTRC officials stated that the exercise, the first in a series of temporary shutdowns, was to test the agency’s ability to restrict access to communications to protect public safety in the event of an emergency, such as a terror attack. On August 4, the BTRC carried out a directive to block 35 news websites that had published material critical of the government and current political leaders or were perceived to feature overt support for political opposition groups. Many of the sites remained blocked at the end of the year.
Facebook’s “biannual government requests report” for January to June 2016 showed the government made nine requests for data pursuant to legal process regarding eight users or accounts and one emergency request for data regarding one user or account in that period. Facebook reported producing some data in response to one request pursuant to legal process and one emergency request. The 10 total requests for data regarding nine users or accounts made by the government in the first half of 2016 is a slight decrease from the 12 requests for data regarding 31 users or accounts made in second half of 2015. Facebook further reported that two pieces of content were restricted at the BTRC’s request in the first half of 2016, due to alleged violation of local law regarding blasphemy and the Bangladesh Information and Communications Technology Act.
Google’s biannual transparency report for July to December 2015 showed the government made two requests for removal of two YouTube videos in that period. One request was related to alleged defamation and the other was related to alleged copyright violation. Google, which owns YouTube, did not comply with either request. Twitter’s biannual Transparency Report for January to June 2016 showed no requests for data or content removal from the government. In Twitter’s July to December 2015 report, the government made 10 requests for account information regarding 25 accounts, all pursuant to emergency disclosure requests. Law enforcement officers may submit an emergency disclosure request to Twitter on the basis of an exigent emergency that involves the danger of death or serious physical injury to a person that Twitter may have information necessary to protect. Twitter provided some information in response to six of those requests.
Individuals and groups generally engaged in the expression of views via the internet, although some activists stated that fear of prosecution under the Information and Communication Technology Act (ICTA) limited their online speech. The government used the ICTA and the threat of sedition charges, which carry a possible death penalty, to limit online activity and curtail freedom of expression online. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission filtered internet content that the government deemed harmful to national unity and religious beliefs. The ICTA was amended in 2013 to increase penalties for cybercrime, make more offenses ineligible for bail, and give law enforcement officers broader authority to arrest violators without a court order. Opponents of the ICTA stated that section 57, which criminalizes the posting online of inflammatory or derogatory information against the state or individuals, stifles freedom of speech and is unconstitutional. The High Court previously rejected pleas challenging the constitutionality of section 57. The Cabinet approved a draft of the controversial digital security act in August, which includes a provision for life imprisonment for spreading negative propaganda through digital devices regarding the country’s independence war and founding leader. The law was under review by the Law Ministry at the year’s end.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
Although the government placed few restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events, media groups reported 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. Appointment of teachers in universities continued to be politicized, and in September the Ministry of Education suggested that police or intelligence agencies should review teachers’ personal information to ensure that they are not involved in antigovernment or criminal activities.