Long struggle for press freedom

In two short periods in Bangladesh’s 50 year history the media was free — but for most of the half century, governments have restricted press freedom.

Long struggle for press freedom
An old newspaper hawker in Bangladesh sorts out newspapers to be sold in the morning during the country's recent lockdown. Photo: SOPA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Though the phrase, “newspapers are a mirror to society”, is an overused metaphor, the situation of a country’s media does reflect the nature of the state, whether it is democratic, autocratic, monarchical, authoritarian or indeed one-party rule. The media’s 50-year journey in Bangladesh is no exception. Its characteristics, purpose and behaviour over the five decades have transformed according to changes in the custodians in power. Accordingly, its development can be broadly defined in different segments of time, including two brief periods when the media enjoyed real freedom. 

The first period of real freedom was very brief, lasting about two years after independence while the second episode took place following the restoration of democracy in the 1990s. In between those two periods – involving the final years of the first government and two different military regimes — there were contrasting scenarios. Between 1973 to 1975 and between 1982-1990, there was stricter tightening of media freedom, but between 1975 to 1982 there was gradual liberalisation of the media from state control.  

In post-1990s’ Bangladesh, after the restoration of democracy, we have witnessed a similar pattern. First there was gradual liberalisation and then a new kind of control, which many observers describe as the worst state of media freedom experienced in the country. Throughout the last decade Bangladesh’s ranking in the international media freedom index has been continuously falling and it now stands at 152 out of 180 nations. Reporters Sans Frontier (RSF) has also named the Bangladeshi prime minister a “predator of press freedom” along with President Putin of Russia, President Xi of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. Journalist unions aligned with the ruling party in Bangladesh, however, have contested the RSF’s assertion. In a more recent development, these same unions have staged a number of demonstrations protesting a recent government move to investigate union leaders’ bank accounts claiming it as an attempt to scare the media.  

Tools of muzzling the media

Successive governments in Bangladesh have used various incentives and punishments in order to extract loyalty and subservience from the media. These include its powers over granting permissions for publication and broadcasting licences; imposing restrictive import duties on printing materials and broadcast equipment; allocation of government advertisements; delaying payments of such advertisements; restricting access to public establishments and official functions; issuance of official and unofficial advisories; applying laws to threaten and harass and even (on occasion) resorting to violence

In the early years after independence, the then Commerce Ministry, imposed quotas on locally produced newsprint citing high demand overseas for exports. In the later years, when newspapers became reliant on imported newsprint, this quota system has been used as a carrot and stick, allowing political allies to profit from selling any excess allocation for profit. Government advertisements have always been a tool to reward loyalty. But, since 2013, the government has been advising private sector businesses, albeit unofficially, not to place their advertisements in the Bangla daily Prothom Alo, well known for unmasking corruption in the government and reporting human rights violations by law enforcing agencies.

Harassment by members of the ruling party is another commonly used tactic to discourage journalists from speaking the truth. And, again on the top of the list are two editors of the country’s leading two newspapers — Mahfuz Anam of The Daily Star and Matiur Rahman of Prothom Alo — who have in total more than 150 defamation cases between them instituted all over the country by supporters of the ruling party under different governments.              

Besides the government, freedom of the media in Bangladesh, is also facing serious threats from the owners as corporate houses are relentlessly pursuing their interests through exerting financial powers to influence news and opinion. Many of these business houses have launched their own newspapers or media outlets to advance their commercial interest and hurt their rivals which makes objective journalism harder for those who work for these media platforms. Some businesses also use the promise of advertisements as a tool to suppress stories that might affect their trade adversely.  

1972: New found freedom after independence

In the aftermath of a bloody war of independence, the first few years of governance were truly chaotic and challenging. And just as the political environment was turbulent, the policies towards the media were also incoherent and inconsistent.

The media, which had a long history of supporting the political struggle for freedom against dictatorial regimes and exploitation of the West Pakistani ruling class, also celebrated their freedom. Many of those newspapers and magazines that had been forced to shut down during the Pakistani military crackdown started resurfacing. Those papers which continued publishing during the liberation war either were abandoned by their owners who fled to Pakistan or went into hiding, or their editors were removed and replaced. There were exceptions like The Observer, which was owned by a former Pakistani minister, Hamidul Haque Chowdhury, where the editor Abdus Salam kept his job under the new government. However, Salam lost his job in early 1972 after writing an editorial titled, “The supreme test”, in which he called for the formation of a national government.  

The thirst for revenge against collaborators of the Pakistani army among a section of people, the lack of jobs due to the destruction of infrastructure and factories, and shortages of food and essentials led to a state of near collapse of law and order. Reports of lynching were pouring in everyday from all over the country. Outraged by the government’s failure to stop violent deaths all around, journalist Nirmal Sen wrote an article in a state-run daily, Dainik Bangla, on March 14th 1973, calling for a guarantee of the right to a “peaceful death”. It was a bold and strong opinion piece that demanded accountability of the government. Fellow journalists were worried about his physical safety as well as the newspaper’s future. But, surprisingly, rather than shying away from the article, the newspaper reprinted it again the very next day, because the first print had some typographical errors — and there were no repercussions.    

1973—1975: Gradual diminution of freedom 

Sadly, there were too many other incidents where the state was not so tolerant. In the same year and at the same paper, journalist Mahfuz Ullah wrote a two-part feature on problems caused by the Farakka Barrage, titled “Epar Padma, opar Ganga” (Padma on this side, Ganges on the other), but the second part was not published following an intervention from the government. The press came under frequent attacks from both the government and the activists of the ruling party. Licenses of quite a few newspapers critical of the government including Haq Katha published by Maulana Bhasani were cancelled. Another prominent daily Ganakatntha, known for its strong criticism of the government and association with newly founded opposition party, Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal (JSD) had a typical relationship with the government. Though it initially got a contract with a state-owned printing press to print the paper and was housed at a property allocated by the government, it became a regular target of harassment and attacks and its editor, poet Al Mahmud, was arrested. 

Similarly, publication of the Holiday was suspended for two months in 1973 under the Press and Publication Act and it was again proscribed on May 23rd 1975 and its editor jailed under the Special Powers Act. The Holiday editor Enayetullah Khan was subjected to unusually harsh and nasty criticisms both in parliament and in an article written by Sheikh Fazlul Huq Moni, the nephew of the country’s independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, published in his newspaper. Khan had angered the ruling party earlier by questioning the very terminology of “collaborator”, in a leader article titled “65 million collaborators” published in the Holiday on February 6th 1972. It was written in support of popular singers like Abdul Latif, Abdul Alim, and Ferdausi Rahman who were prevented from taking part in programmes in Bangladesh Betar and Bangladesh Television as, in common with hundreds of thousands of other civil servants, they remained in the country during the liberation war and continued performing in the nine month period of conflict. 

In 1973, the Awami League government brought in the Press and Publications Act empowering the government to grant licenses for newspapers and for registration of all publications including books. Then, on February 2nd 1974, it enacted the Special Powers Act granting powers to the government to order preventive detentions for indefinite periods. Under the act authorities could prohibit publication of any prejudicial report for the sake of maintaining law and order. But, the worst was yet to come as the country was moving towards one-party rule. 

On January 5th 1975, the fourth amendment of the constitution was enacted abolishing the multiparty parliamentary system and making Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, also known as Bangabandhu (Friend of Bengal), the new president of the republic. A new party under the name of Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League (Baksal) was formed on February 24th 1975 with all powers related to membership of the party vested in the hands of the president. The party was open to the members of the civil and military services. Editors and journalists, with few exceptions, joined Baksal.

On June 16th 1975, the government enacted the Newspapers Declaration (Amendment) Ordinance under which publication of 29 daily and 138 weekly newspapers and periodicals were prohibited. Only two English and two Bangla newspapers were allowed to continue under direct government control.

Of the four, The Bangladesh Observer and the Dainik Bangla were already under government control. The other two newspapers were The Bangladesh Times, owned by Sheikh Fazlul Huq Moni, and the Bangla Daily Ittefaq, owned by heirs to the late Tofazzal Hossain (Manik Mia), whose family ties with Sheikh Mujibur Rahman were well known.

Hundreds of journalists lost their jobs following the closure of newspapers. Most of them were offered jobs in government offices, some in public relations, but others in various departments including Customs and Excise. Though many journalists preferred a secure government job instead of poorly paid journalism, a good number of them either refused to accept the government position or were left unemployed due to delays in finding them suitable posts.   

In an editorial at the time, The Bangladesh Times wrote on June 19th 1975: “When the entire nation has opted for one-party system in place of the hitherto existing multiple parties for achieving greater national cohesion and solidarity, there was no justification for retaining a plethora of daily newspapers which used to serve as vehicles for preaching heterogeneous ideologies, most of which are alien and, therefore, essentially undesirable.”

An international press freedom group, the International Press Institute (IPI), however, said in its 1975 annual report, “The suspension on June 16 of all newspapers except for the government dailies marked the end of the last vestiges of press freedom in the country. Thus, in three short years, the press passed from the virtual freedom of 1972 to total government suppression.”

1975—1982: Military regimes and contrasting behaviours with the media

Politics took a tragic turn on August 15th 1975, when a group of rogue army officers staged a bloody coup killing Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his entire family except two of his daughters — Sheikh Hasina and her younger sister Sheikh Rehana — who were then staying in Brussels. Coup plotters installed a new government headed by Khandaker Mushtaq Ahmed, a close associate of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The most striking feature of the political upheavals of 1975 was the absence of any resistance from the once all-encompassing political force Baksal or its predecessor Awami League. The new cabinet consisted entirely of Awami League leaders. But, within a short period two more coup and counter coups took place through which General Ziaur Rahman emerged as the de facto ruler, assuming the office of the president in April 1977. According to Ali Riaz of Illinois State University, “The military government embarked on a series of policies, which were diametrically opposed to those of the Mujib regime, and consequently changed not only the system of government but also the nature of the Bangladesh state.”

In July 1976, Ziaur Rahman enacted the Political Parties Regulations Act resulting in the reappearance of political parties gradually with elections held for president in 1978 and parliament in 1979. 

Reversal of media restrictions, however, began even before Ziaur Rahman became chief martial law administrator. In reversing Baksal’s governing system, the Mushtaq government also repealed the Newspapers Declaration (Amendment) Ordinance (1975). As a result, banned newspapers got an opportunity to resume their publications. For many journalists it meant the end of uncertainties and not having to quit their profession. General Ziaur Rahman later founded a new government-funded newspaper from the northern region of the country called Dainik Barta; set up an institution for training of journalists, Press Institute of Bangladesh (PIB); formed the Press Council as an arbitration body to deal with complaints against the press; and, granted lease of a piece of government land for the National Press Club. When he founded his own political party, he also launched a daily newspaper, Dainik Desh, for promoting his party’s policies and activities. 

Despite these positive actions in favour of journalism, the government’s interventions into editorial freedom did not end. According to the then president of Dhaka Union of Journalists (1974-78), Reazuddin Ahmed, journalists’ demands for scrapping preventative rules of the Special Powers Act including closure of publications and indefinite detentions of journalists remained unheeded.

A weekly named, The Reporter, was closed for publishing a list of alleged Russian agents in the country. Journalist Durga Das Bhattacharya was detained under the Special Powers Act and imprisoned. After the assassination of General Ziaur Rahman, his successor President Sattar’s civilian regime too continued the practice of issuing so-called “press advice”. Examples cited by journalist Mahfuz Ullah in his book documenting the state of press freedom include an incident on April 26th 1982 when the government’s advisory issued to the newspapers said arrests during curfews should not be reported. Mahfuz Ullah argued that breaking curfew out of necessity by innocent people was not uncommon, but the government thought publications of such news would be viewed as a political challenge to the government.  

1982—1990: Ershad’s clampdown on editorial independence 

With Lieutenant General Hussain Muhammad Ershad taking power in 1982, Mahfuz Ullah’s book shows how media advisories became embedded in state policy as a way of controlling the media. Ironically, General Ershad had told journalists immediately after assuming power that he wanted journalists to write freely with objectivity which they could not under the previous BNP government. But, it was his government which issued most of the written directives to the press, sometimes concerning matters which did not have any link to the affairs of the state. One such instruction was an instruction in November 1985 to publish a poem said to be written by him on the occasion of his visit to Malaysia. 

Ershad and his ministers used the tool of press advisories frequently not only for promoting their activities or policies, but also to suppress unpleasant and inconvenient truths. In addition, he ordered the publishing of lies. One such instruction was issued on August 16th 1985 in which newspapers were asked to write that five political parties of the country had launched an alliance called Jatiyo Front at a press conference held in Dhaka, though in reality there was no press conference and the launch was done by Anwar Zahid, a journalist-cum-politician who simply announced it through issuing a press release that he wrote sitting in his office at Bangladesh Times newspaper. On some occasions, advisories were issued to stop newspapers from reporting Ershad’s speeches and comments. One such advisory issued on November 23rd 1985 asked newspapers not to report or reproduce General Ershad’s interview given to a UK-based weekly, Jagoron

During Ershad’s rule journalists devised a new technique to inform readers about the opposition’s action programmes to avoid harsh consequences. As the government ordered newspapers not to report hartals (general strikes), journalists used to write opposition calls for observance of “a countrywide programme” and readers immediately recognised it for what it actually meant. 

General Ershad devised a strategic approach to keep the media under pressure by organising monthly meetings with editors where he referred disparagingly to critical coverage of his government. Several newspapers, including the popular weekly Jai Jai Din, were forced to close and its editor had to leave the country for some time. Another weekly Bichinta also faced closure during Ershad’s rule. In February 1987, the pro-Awami League newspaper Banglar Bani was also banned for a few months. Proscribing foreign newspapers and magazines too was a common practice. 

At one stage when indications were evident that his fall was imminent following an unprecedented alliance in late 1990 of two political foes — Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia — Ershad sought to impose stricter pre-censorship on the media so that newspapers were ordered to get pre-publication approval from government officials. Journalist unions and editors council refused to accept this new policy and went on a strike which ended with the fall of his government.

1990—2008: Shining but short lived freedom  

With the transition from military dictatorship to democracy, following the mass-citizen upsurge of 1990, press freedom did improve, though it did not last too long. Press freedom in its real essence in Bangladesh had a very short life in the nineties. With the fall of Ershad, a caretaker government headed by the then chief justice, Shahbuddin Ahmed, was entrusted to hold a general election within 90 days following a consensus among all national political parties. The caretaker government, through issuance of an ordinance, amended the repressive provisions of the Special Powers Act under which the government had the power to stop any publication. However, occasionally the government did continue to issue press advice. 

After the election, which local and international observers have described as free and fair, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) emerged victorious and Khaleda Zia became the prime minister. However, her first term in office was marred with continued upheavals on several issues including demands to switch over to a parliamentary system of government instead of the existing presidential form and to introduce a neutral caretaker system of government for conducting general elections.

Despite such turbulence, the media environment did undergo a limited but positive change. Her government for the first time opened the airwaves for foreign broadcasters, allowing the BBC World Service to air their programmes on FM frequencies. It also allowed the US cable TV network CNN to broadcast in Bangladesh. But, it refrained from allowing private ownership of broadcast media within the country. The state-owned television and radio were allowed to cover opposition news, though in a limited form. 

Comparative and historical data since 1973 compiled by the US-based organisation Freedom House, known for tracking global trends in political rights and civil liberties, shows in 1991 Bangladesh gained the status of “Free” democracy which requires among other civil and political rights, the  freedom of press and opinion. These new freedoms continued for the best part of her first term in office, but did not last for long. 

The ensuing election in February 1996, boycotted by all other opposition parties caused a nationwide violent protest and Quamruzzaman, a reporter for the weekly newspaper Neel Sagar, was fatally shot by security officers while covering the government’s crackdown on a violent protest against election results in the northern town of Nilphamari.

Until 2006, power had rotated between the Awami League and the BNP, but during this period the state of press freedom declined gradually and risks for journalists increased incrementally. In 1996, the Awami League returned to power for the first time since restoration of democracy and allowed private ownership of broadcast media with the launching of the news and current affairs station, Ekushey TV, along with two others — ATN Bangla and Channel I — for entertainment. However, journalists reporting on corruption and crime by party activists faced serious physical violence, including Tipu Sultan, a reporter at Prothom Alo.  

In 2001, the BNP revoked the licence of ETV and security forces seized broadcast equipment citing a court verdict on exclusion of private channels from terrestrial broadcasting. Newspapers and journalists critical of the government faced threats and were subjected to harassment. It was comparatively worse than the previous regime of Awami League, but after the Awami League regained power in 2009, the situation of media freedom worsened further. Awami League too shut down three private TV channels that had got licences during previous BNP regime, shut down a printing press publishing a pro-BNP newspaper Amar Desh and arrested the editor-publisher of the paper. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), five journalists were killed between 1996 and 2001, and between 2002 and 2006 the number of journalists killed was seven. The same historical data shows 11 journalists lost their lives between 2012 and 2021. The CPJ data on killings, imprisonment and disappearances show increasing intensity of the threats the media has been facing under successive governments in Bangladesh.

2009—present: Press freedom to “praise freedom”

In recent years, media plurality has taken a very different meaning in Bangladesh as it is being portrayed only in total numbers of media outlets, not in the sense of divergent voices. In the early years of independent Bangladesh media meant only newspapers, as the electronic media or broadcasting was fully under state control, but there has now been a mushrooming of both traditional media outlets and new digital media platforms. At present, there are 1,200 daily newspapers that have declarations in Dhaka and over 3,000 across the country (though it is not clear how many of these are actually publishing) and over three dozen TV channels. Sadly, such mushroom growth has nearly drowned out truly independent media and provided multiple propaganda tools to the party in power. 

Newsroom managers, nowadays, say that what they fear most is “unofficial” press advice which is given from the other end of a phone. This can be more potent than the  previous written directives as they do not exist on paper (and so are not challengeable), but if defied can result in harassment, interferences in doing business and even risk to personal safety.

The state of media at present in Bangladesh was perfectly described by Mahfuz Anam, editor of the country’s top English newspaper, The Daily Star, when he wrote in 2019: “there is a new incarnation of press freedom. It is ‘praise freedom’ — where the press is fully free but only to praise and the more the press can praise, the freer it is certified to be.”

A leading global media rights group, Reporters Sans Frontier (RSF) in it’s 2021 annual report has said, “self-censorship has reached unprecedented levels because editors are justifiably reluctant to risk imprisonment or their media outlet’s closure”. Explaining the reasons behind self-censorship it notes, “there has been an alarming increase in police and civilian violence against reporters. Many journalists, bloggers and cartoonists were also arrested and prosecuted for their reporting on the pandemic and its impact on society. To this end, the government now has a tailor-made judicial weapon for silencing troublesome journalists — the 2018 digital security law, under which ‘negative propaganda’ is punishable by up to 14 years in prison.” 

Freedom House, another international body monitoring media developments, says, journalists and media outlets face many forms of pressure, including frequent lawsuits, harassment, and serious or deadly physical attacks.Throughout 2020”, it said, “journalists were beaten by uniformed security forces, forced to disappear, or sued for defamation. Journalists have been arrested or attacked in connection with reporting issues relating to the 1971 war and election irregularities during both the 2018 parliamentary polls and 2019 local polls. A climate of impunity for attacks on media workers remains the norm, and there has been little progress made to ensure justice for a series of blogger murders since 2015. Dozens of bloggers and journalists remain in hiding or in exile. The 2018 Digital Security Act allows the government to conduct searches or arrest individuals without a warrant, criminalizes various forms of speech, and was vehemently opposed by journalists.”

According to figures compiled by Bangladesh’s top Bangla newspaper Prothom Alo, since the enactment of the Digital Security Act in December 2018, an average of three people per day have had criminal cases filed against them under this law. Human rights groups say since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic at least 80 journalists have been sued under DSA, 2 have been killed, 70 have injured and at least 5 were subjected to enforced disappearances for varied periods. 

As the country is going through an unprecedented political transformation where opposition is almost decimated and all state institutions are crumbling, challenges for survival of independent media and journalistic freedom are enormous. The fifty-year journey of our media, sadly, has now reached a precarious state.●

Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist.

Annindya Prokashon, February 1991
Press Advice, Mahfuz Ullah, 1991
Satyer Sandhane Protidin, Reazuddin Ahmed, 2000
Press under Mujib Regime, Mahfuz Ullah, 2002
Bangladesh: A political history since independence, Ali Riaz, 2016