EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW BY safenewsrooms.org 

SUPRITI DHAR

BANGLADESHI JOURNALIST IN EXILE

Supriti Dhar runs a very popular blogsite, called Women Chapter, where women are allowed to speak out about the changes they want to see in society, share news and experiences. She is under severe threat both from the religious extremists and the state, but very determined to continue her work. [Source: Frontline Defenders]. We ask her about how journalists in Bangladesh are being forced to censor?

1. Tell us more about yourself?

I have been working as a journalist for more than 20 years. I have always been vocal, and I always felt unwelcomed by my journalist community. As a result I was forced to leave my job many times. Not only me, many other the female journalists have gone quiet because of being harassed, neglected or discriminated in their job field. So I decided to create my own space, and space for other female journalists. I started an online platform, called Women Chapter in 2013, which became very popular within a short period. It became a voice of general women. But my work has now landed me in trouble, and I have been threatened from all quarters. On the eve of the last national election, some influential within the ruling party advised me that it was best that I left the country. Now I am in exile and even then I am facing trouble back home. The religious extremists recently filed a case against me and my daughter, who is in charge of English Women Chapter. (The case is under Section 57, considered as a black law in our history).

2. What is the current environment for independent thinking journalists and news practitioners in Bangladesh?

The problems started before the second term of the present Awami League government, and many feel that the last national election was just an eye-wash. No strong opposition party participated in that election, and even many voters were refrained from voting. The government ordered the media to censor and some who did not were shut down. Some of the editors were arrested. However some survived, but they were financially squeezed as no businesses would provide them revenue through advertisements. Subsequently, only the big media houses were able to sustain in such an environment, and very few of them dared to stand up to the government, effectively silencing any critical voice in the media. Many of our fellow journalist were forced to leave the country and find new livelihoods, as they faced terminations.

When the elections were over and the new government was formed (which is the continuation of the previous one), they started issuing licenses to many new TV and radio channels, but the ones that they know will tow the government’s line. Only pro-Awami League journalists, and businessmen are going into media now, and many of them are known to have no ethics and have illegal money, that they want to white-wash by opening up a media house.

3. How is freedom of expression curtailed in newsrooms?

It usually depends on who the owner/management is. The newsrooms have to operate as per the leanings of the owners, given that the media industry is very owner-driven. There are only a few media organizations which exercise freedom of expression, despite the government’s crackdown.

In their recently published report, Reporters Sans Frontiers criticized the Information and Communication Technology Act in Bangladesh saying that it restricts media practitioners and due to this self-censorship is growing. According to RSF, in 2017, at least 25 journalists and several hundred bloggers and Facebook users were prosecuted under the Information and Communication Technology Act, which penalizes online content which may be referred to as “defamatory or blasphemous”, which are quite vague terms.

The report furthers adds that: “Instead of amending this law, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government proposed a new digital security law in early 2018 with vaguely-worded provisions that would allow the authorities to clamp down even more on dissent”.

Interestingly, the report points out how “in Bangladesh, it is a bad idea to criticize the constitution or Islam, although the country is officially secular.”

4. In the newsroom of a Bangladeshi media house, who orders censorship and why?

There are different stakeholders in the Bangladeshi media landscape that force newsrooms to censor.

Firstly, it is the government which forces it through seen and unseen measures. If you cross a line, they may come after you. However, given that we somewhat form of a democracy, some independent media organizations continue to survive despite these restrictions, but I do not know for how long.

Another pressure group are religious extremists. Many Islamic organizations monitor the media very closely and the government has an open or secret alliance with them. They regularly issue direct and indirect threats over any coverage that might be critical of thei’r activities.

Third is the Bangladesh Army. Referred to as “the cantonment”, they also actively control the media. In my opinion the military’s control over newsrooms is the toughest one to deal with. None of the media organizations can report about issues which may go against them. The media is not also allowed access at times because of the army.

Now we have the deadly Digital Security Act, which is enacted only to control opinions of dissidents. If you speak, raise your voice, you can find yourself in the jail. Section 57 of the

5. Who promotes self-censorship in the Bangladeshi newsrooms? The reporters? The editors? The owner

Journalists and bloggers who resist censorship or self-censorship on taboo subjects can risk life imprisonment or the death penalty, while Islamist militants often issue online calls for the murder of outspoken secularist bloggers and writers. Usually, the media owners also exercises some sort of censorships, especially if it goes against their interests, monetary or otherwise. As for the editors, the owner usually control the editors and through them all the journalists working at such media houses. I would say there are very few are independent newsrooms left in Bangladesh which continue to report ethically.

6. What topics are taboo? Why?

There is a long list of these topics. Basically, when the same government runs the country for such a long period, especially without accountability through any strong opposition, then your voice can be shut down at any moment, and anything can be a taboo for rulers. It maybe reporting on corruption, wrong-doings of the government, or it might be army-related issues. As mentioned earlier, even issues related to Islam, and the extremism that is associated with it can be a taboo topic. Sometimes even when we talk about women-related issues, it also becomes a taboo.

7. What is the impact of this censorship on Bangladeshi society?

In Bangladesh, the space to exercise freedom of speech is shrinking day by day. Even though our constitution guarantees freedom of expression, the authorities do not abide by it. The present government has started putting pressure on people who criticize its activities or reject its political or philosophical stance. Given this, there is a climate of fear which has now gripped the country and especially the newsrooms. As a result, some media outlets are exercising self-censorship. Recently, the government also introduced a new broadcast law to censor the content of TV programs and movies. Aside from prohibiting political, religious and (so-called) sexual material, it also bans the transmission of stories that hold the powerful to account. Subsequently, the impact on society is that nobody wants to speak up any more. Dissidents are scared of harassment, being imprisoned, kidnapped, or even killed. There are lot of incidents of kidnappings and killings of news practitioners. And many who return after being abducted either go silent or are forced to leave the country.

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