The Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression; freedom of the press is also mentioned but this freedom is not an absolute one, rather subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by the law on several grounds.
Media freedom in Bangladesh is endangered because the country has both colonial and modern-day laws often being applied to curtail media freedom and intimidate journalists. These laws and some regulations are misused to allow the law enforcers and influential individuals to act against the media when their interests are affected by journalism. Ministers and lawmakers often criticise the media whenever any news goes against the government or damages the image of the ruling party. The tendency to sue journalists under so-called defamation cases filed by pro-government people is alarming. Journalists nowadays face more direct and indirect threats than ever. Although the government would deny the fact and say those laws and regulations are intended for streamlining the media, it seems to be pushing for new legislation to have further grip on the free flow of information through overt and covert interventions.
Old laws that exert influence upon the working of the media in one way or the other are Special Powers Act of 1974, Official Secrets Act of 1923, Contempt of Court Act 1926, Copyright Act 2000 and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). There is a history of misusing these acts. Enacted during the British colonial era in 1898, CrPC has a provision for issuing direct arrest warrants against anybody including journalists, writers and publishers of any books or newspapers if they wrote or said anything considered defamatory. Journalists have long been demanding the scrapping of the provision, only to be ignored by the successive governments. However, in 2011 the Bangladesh Parliament passed a bill, scrapping the provision of issuing direct arrest warrants against journalists, writers and others for writing or saying anything defamatory. But it did not bring any relief to the media as more stringent laws were promulgated later.
The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act enacted in 2006 is notable. It has a provision to sue journalists on charges of defamation and hurting religious sentiment, and a jail term for 10 years. The law was amended in 2013 only to make it harsher, extending the jail term to 14 years and scraping the provision of bail. The law has, in fact, no safeguard for journalists and the result is that two dozen journalists were sued under its Section 57 of the Act alone in 2017.
Amid a growing demand, the government announced to repeal the controversial law and instead decided to promulgate a new law titled Digital Security Act. A draft of the new law got approval recently, bringing more frustration to the journalist community. The Section 57 of the previous law was incorporated in the draft and, once in force, that would further curtail the freedom of media, especially the scope for investigative reporting. Fearing misuse, journalists demanded not to include any provisions that go against media freedom. They said these provisions are contradictory to the Right to Information Act.
In 2014, the government passed the National Broadcast Policy for television and radio stations, drawing widespread debates and criticism from rights activists, civil society and media personalities, who expressed concern about a possible misuse of some of its provisions and the scope of undermining the constitutional right to free media, access to information and freedom of expression. The policy includes some positive elements but it may turn out to be a convenient tool for the government to restrict the free flow of information and, thereby, establish more control on the media. Human Rights Watch has urged the government to revoke the policy, saying it imposes draconian restrictions on media freedom.
As per recommendations of the policy, the government prepared a draft of the Broadcast Act in 2016, incorporating provisions of jail terms and fines for violating the rules or regulations of the act and orders or directives of the proposed broadcast commission. The draft says criminal procedures would be followed in case of probe, trial and appeal concerning any offence that falls under the act. One may face a maximum penalty of three months’ imprisonment or a fine of US$50,0000 or both for violating the rules or regulations and orders or directives of the commission. It listed as many as 27 different activities that a broadcaster cannot carry out without prior approval from the authorities concerned.
In 2017, the cabinet approved a draft of the National Online Mass Media Policy, keeping provisions similar to that of the proposed Broadcast Act. Transparency International, Bangladesh (TIB) called upon the government to halt the implementation of the policy for its potential threat to press freedom.
Soon after the emergence of Bangladesh, the Printing Press and Publication Act came into force in 1973. It gave a district magistrate the power to grant permission to publish newspapers. The act specifies the responsibilities of the newspapers. The Newspaper Employees (Condition of Service) Act of 1974 laid down rules for ensuring rights and privileges of the journalists and the employees of the newspapers. Under its Clause 20, the government can formulate rules concerning work hours, leave, provident fund and procedures to be followed by the wage board. However, the government brought journalists and employees under the Labour Law of 2006, making the 1974 act dysfunctional.