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ASIA PACIFIC: Countries in Focus

Update on Bangladesh


2018 XpA Scores:
Freedom of Expression – 0.21 Civic Space – 0.19
Digital – 0.10 Media – 0.22
Protection – 0.12 Transparency – 0.17

The XpA 17/18 reported on Bangladesh’s progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals set against its ongoing failure to secure an enabling environment for expression, with record numbers of attacks on journalists and cases of legal harassment, many perpetrated by state and political actors.

Bangladesh’s XpA scores are significantly below the regional average – particularly for Digital (0.10), Protection (0.12), and Transparency (0.17).

2018 was an election year for Bangladesh, and saw a corresponding rise in censorship and violence: more than 50 websites were blocked, mobile operators were ordered to slow their speeds, and 30 masked individuals attacked 12 journalists on 24 December.[1] There were also reports of mass arrests of opposition politicians, and 300,000 politically motivated criminal cases were filed against party members and supporters.[2] The ruling Awami League dominated the election, though the opposition rejected the result and called for a new vote.

Writer and publisher Shahjahan Bachchu was shot dead in June. He was known for his religious nonconformism, running publishing house Bishakha Prokashoni, and editing online weekly Amader Bikrampur.[3] Mahmudur Rahman, former editor of an opposition-aligned daily, was attacked and injured as he left a defamation hearing, and needed to seek medical attention in a hospital. It is suspected that he was attacked by the Bangladesh Chhatra League, a pro-government student group.[4]

The Digital Security Act was passed, dashing hopes of an opening for online expression after the hard-won repeal of the notorious Section 57. The new law provides for life sentences for using digital devices to spread negative propaganda against the ‘Liberation War’ or the ‘Father of the Nation’; up to five years’ imprisonment for deliberately publishing defamatory or false or distorted content; and up to 10 years’ imprisonment for hurting religious sentiments, hate speech, or causing deterioration of law and order.[5]

The XpA shows significant decline under the Digital theme over the last decade.

Figure 22: 

There was public outrage at the new provisions – particularly the provision of the new law, which classes gathering information from inside government offices as espionage, carrying a 14-year jail sentence. Many took to Twitter to defend investigative journalism, declaring #IAmaSpy.[6]

Broadcast media was also restricted in October, when the National Broadcast Act passed, providing sentences of up to three years in prison for ‘going against the spirit’ of the 1971 Liberation War, or airing ‘misleading or false’ information.[7]

August also saw major protests, centred around road safety, in Bangladesh. Police and armed men injured more than 40 media workers. No cases were lodged in connection with this violence, despite pressure from ministers and substantial video and photo evidence; not one perpetrator has even been officially identified.

A photojournalist was subjected to 100 days of arbitrary detention. Shahidul Alam was arrested for posting video footage of protests on Facebook; the Prime Minister himself accused Alam of spreading ‘false news’ and being ‘mentally sick’.[8]

But it was not only journalists who were penalised for coverage of the protests; on 4 August, police arrested Nusrat Jahan Sonia – a 25-year-old primary school teacher, who was seven months pregnant – in a rural area south of Dhaka. She was held for over two weeks for ‘spreading rumours’. However, a member of her family said Sonia had merely shared a Facebook post relating to the protest. She has been suspended from her job at a government school until her case is cleared, which may take years.[9]

Impunity for crimes against journalists is a too-familiar story in Bangladesh, where the huge majority of crimes go unpunished. The 2012 murders of journalists Sagar Sarwar (news editor at the Maasranga TV channel) and Meherun Runi (senior reporter at ATN Bangla) are emblematic of its lack of progress; delivery of the investigation report into these murders has now been delayed 66 times.[10]



[1] Reporters without Borders, Bangladeshi Election Discredited by Attacks on Journalists, Press Freedom, 28 December 2018, available at

[2] Reporters without Borders, Bangladeshi Election Discredited by Attacks on Journalists, Press Freedom, 28 December 2018, available at

[3] International Federation of Journalists, ‘Bangladeshi “secularist” blogger-publisher Shahzahan Bachchu shot dead’, IFEX, 13 June 2018, available at

[4] Committee to Protect Journalists, Bangladeshi Editor Injured in Attack Outside Courtroom, 24 July 2018, available at

[5] International Federation of Journalists, Bangladesh Drafts Draconian Digital Security Act, 30 January 2018, available at

[6] Global Voices, ‘According to the Digital Security Law, I am a Spy’: Bangladeshi Journalists Defend Their Right to Investigate, 7 February 2018, available at

[7] Dhaka Tribune, ‘Draft law cleared with jail time for airing lies on talk shows’, 15 October 2018, available at

[8] ARTICLE 19, Bangladesh: Release Photojournalist Shahidul Alam and Stop Violations to Free Expression, 7 August 2018, available at; see also Jonathan Spicer Serajul Quadir, ‘Exclusive: Bangladesh PM takes aim at photographer, critics say it is part of wider crackdown’, Reuters, 12 October 2018, available at

[9] The Daily Star, ‘Spreading rumours: Patuakhali school teacher released after HC bail’, 20 August 2018, available at

[10] Dhaka Tribune, ‘Sagar-Runi murder: Probe report delayed for 66th time’, 26 June 2019, available at