Five Bangladeshi and international organizations have written an open letter to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina seeking action against physical and judicial attacks on reporters and cartoonists in connection with the Covid19 crisis.
The organisations, which defend the freedom to inform, have urged Hasina to take positive step to guarantee journalistic freedom during the Covid19 pandemic.
The letter has been signed by Terry Anderson, executive director, Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI); Christophe Deloire, secretary-general, Reporters Without Borders (RSF); Dr. Syeda Aireen Jaman, chairwoman, Forum for Freedom of Expression, Bangladesh (FExB); Zahirul Islam Khan, chairman, Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK); Patrick Lamassoure (Kak), president, Cartooning For Peace (CFP).
In the letter, the organisations said the Bangladeshi PM on November 19, 2018, had said: “The government firmly believes in freedom of press.”
“Those are your words. You uttered them on 19 November 2018, when funding was awarded to an organization that protects journalists in difficulty,” the letter to Hasina said.
In the letter, the organisations also mentioned that the PM also said: “No one can say we ever gagged anyone’s voice; we never did that, and we don’t do that either.”
“It is nonetheless undeniable that the facts totally contradict these claims. Since this statement, your country has fallen five places in the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF),” the letter to Hasina said.
“Bangladesh is ranked 151st out of 180 countries in the 2020 Index. And, given the disturbing number of press freedom violations in recent weeks, we fear that your country could fall even further next year,” it added.
Stating that during the month of May alone, “at least 16 journalists and bloggers were charged under the 2018 Digital Security Act”, the letter said, the journalists include cartoonist Ahmed Kabir Kishore, who was arrested on 6 May by the Rapid Action Battalion, your country’s counter-terrorism agency.
“His only act of ‘terrorism’ was to have published a series of cartoons of politicians entitled ‘Life in the Time of Corona’. He is still detained and is facing a possible life sentence,” the letter said.
Most of the other journalists being prosecuted under this law simply reported information that annoyed local politicians.
Since the start of the lockdown in Bangladesh, “at least 13 journalists have also been the targets of violence, which in some cases caused serious injuries”, the letter claimed.
“This was the case with Shah Sultan Ahmed, a journalist who was badly beaten on 1 April by about 25 individuals armed with steel rods.”
“The attack was all the more shocking for having been ordered by a local politician in retaliation for a report about the misappropriation of the contents of emergency food packages that your government had sent to help combat the effects of the pandemic,” the organisations said.
According to RSF’s tally, six other journalists have been subjected to outburst of similar violence for investigating cases of corruption among district officials responsible for distributing humanitarian supplies, they claimed in the letter.
During the current “infodemic of misinformation,” as the United Nations has called it, Bangladeshi journalists are working at the frontline to provide the country’s citizens with reliable and independently-reported information.
“It is intolerable that they (journalists) are being subjected to violence and harassment in this manner. Your government has a duty to guarantee journalistic freedom and to ensure that reporters can do their job without fear of either physical or judicial reprisals,” the letter said.
The five Bangladeshi and international organizations have urged Hasina to make sure physical attacks against reporters do not go unpunished by ensuring that the attorney general orders the investigations that are needed for the perpetrators and instigators to be arrested and tried for their actions.
The organisations also requested the dropping of abusive prosecutions of journalists, bloggers and cartoonists under the Digital Security Act.
“Reform your press freedom legislation so that it complies with the undertakings your government has given to international bodies including the UN Human Rights Council” on May 14, 2018, the organisations said.
They urged the Prime Minister to amend the Digital Security Act and draft a law on protecting journalists.
“We stand ready to begin a dialogue with you on achieving these goals,” the organisations said in the letter.