Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the 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 2016 Foreign Donation (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act criminalizes any criticism of constitutional bodies. The 2006 Information and Communication Technology Act references defamation of individuals and organizations and was used to prosecute opposition figures and civil society.
The 2018 Digital Security Act (DSA), passed ostensibly to reduce cybercrimes, 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 groups, journalists, media outlets, and political opposition parties denounced the DSA for suppressing freedom of expression and criminalizing free speech.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: 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. In October the World Economic Forum found press freedom declined over the past year.
The government maintained editorial control over the country’s public television station and mandated private channels broadcast government content at no charge. Civil society organizations 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 when tied to the DSA. The DSA was viewed by human rights activists as a tool to intimidate journalists. The Editors’ Council, an association of newspaper editors, stated the DSA stifled investigative journalism. Individuals faced a threat of being arrested, held in pretrial detention, subjected to expensive criminal trials, fines, and imprisonment, as well as social stigma associated with having a criminal record.
On October 21, police arrested Munir Uddin Ahmed, a district correspondent of the newspaper New Nation and former general secretary of Khulna Press Club, in a case filed under the DSA for mistakenly posting on his Facebook a photograph of the Chittagong Metropolitan police commissioner instead of the Bhola superintendent of police. Although the court twice denied Ahmed’s bail, the Khulna Metropolitan Magistrate court rejected a police request to interrogate him. Observers commented police interrogation–known as remand–occasionally involved mistreatment of the detained. Ahmed remained in prison at year’s end.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Independent journalists and media outlets alleged 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 penalized media that criticized it or carried messages of the political opposition’s activities and statements. Reporters without Border alleged media self-censorship was 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. Investigative journalists often complained of their management and editors “killing” reports for fear of pressure from the government and its intelligence agencies. Some journalists reportedly received threats after publishing their stories.
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.
On January 2, the newspaper Daily Star reported the government detained Khulna reporter Hedait Hossain Molla to investigate accusations he violated the DSA by reporting “false information” about the number of votes cast from Khulna during the 2018 general elections. Following the elections, Molla reported that official initial elections results showed the number of votes cast was higher than the number of eligible voters. A Khulna elections official later corrected the official vote tally, lowering the number of votes cast, but reporters had already published their stories. Molla was then arrested under the DSA for spreading false information. Although Molla was released on bail, he was obliged to appear regularly before the court, since the case remained active.
Journalists claimed the government penalized media that criticized the government or broadcast the opposition’s activities and statements. In April the government cancelled the publishing rights of Juger Chinta, a daily newspaper in Narayanganj. This move sparked a human chain protest in Narayanganj. Journalists claimed the government penalized Juger Chinta because it published reports criticizing the ruling party’s local member of parliament (MP).
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel, slander, defamation, and blasphemy are treated as criminal offenses, most commonly employed against individuals speaking against the government, the prime minister, or other government officials. 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. As of July a total of 420 petitions requesting an investigation had been filed under the act with more than 80 individuals arrested.
In March law enforcement arrested Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Council member Mahfuza Khter Kiron for allegedly defaming the prime minister after saying on a television talk show that Prime Minister Hasina was neglecting football in the country in favor of cricket, maintaining a double standard rewarding the cricket team’s successes, but ignoring those of the football team. In April, Kiron was granted bail, but the charges against her were not dropped.
Nongovernmental Impact: Atheist, secular, and LGBTI writers and bloggers reported they continued to receive death threats from violent extremist organizations.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A number of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated with some government restrictions, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were rarely cooperative and responsive to their views.
Although human rights groups often sharply criticized the government, they also practiced some self-censorship. Observers commented on the government’s strategy to reduce the effectiveness and inhibit operations of civil society, exacerbated by threats from extremists and an increasingly entrenched leading political party. Even civil society members affiliated with the ruling party reported receiving threats of arrest from the security forces for public criticism of government policies.
The government continued to restrict the funding and operations of the human rights organization Odhikar. Odhikar continued to report harassment by government officials and security forces, including disruption of their planned events, and planned to close operations due to funding constraints at the end of the year.
On November 14, a local magistrate mobile court ordered human rights organization Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) to leave its main Dhaka office in two months. The magistrate also fined the organization 200,000 BDT ($2,400) for violating a law that prohibits commercial activities from operating in a residential space. ASK Executive Director Sheepa Hafiza called the order “illegal” and told reporters ASK would move the matter to the judicial court to refute allegations the organization committed an offense. Hafiza further said the government’s move “shrank the activities of rights bodies.”
The government required all NGOs, including religious organizations, to register with the Ministry of Social Welfare. Local and international NGOs working on sensitive topics or groups, such as religious issues, human rights, indigenous peoples, LGBTI communities, Rohingya refugees, or worker rights, faced both formal and informal governmental restrictions. Some of these groups claimed intelligence agencies monitored them. The government sometimes restricted international NGOs’ ability to operate through delays in project registration, cease-and-desist letters, and visa refusals.
Numerous NGOs entered the country in response to the August 2017 Rohingya influx. In August the NGO Affairs Bureau imposed restrictions and suspensions on a number of NGOs in Cox’s Bazar, following an August 25 peaceful rally commemorating the two-year mark of the 2017 Rohingya crisis (see section 2.b.). The government did not publicly disclose all the names of those NGOs.
The Foreign Donations (Voluntary Activities) Regulation Act restricts foreign funding of NGOs and includes punitive provisions for NGOs that make “derogatory” comments regarding the constitution of the country, its founding history, or constitutional bodies (that is, government institutions and leaders).
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not respond to a UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances request to visit the country. The Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh reported 15 other pending requests for UN special rapporteurs to visit the country, including the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; and the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has seven members, including five honorary positions. Nasima Begum, former senior secretary in the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, was appointed NHRC chairman in September. This appointment prompted quick criticisms from civil society, who questioned the government’s selection process, and larger discussions on the commission’s effectiveness and independence as all members were government bureaucrats. The NHRC’s primary activities are to investigate human rights violations, address discrimination in law, educate the public about human rights, and advise the government on key human rights issues.