Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is appalled by the physical attacks against journalists and violations of the free flow of information in the final week of the campaign for Bangladesh’s parliamentary elections on Sunday (30 December).
An alarming total of 12 journalists were injured when around30 masked individuals attacked the staff of two media outlets – the newspaper Jugantorand Jamuna TV – at around 10:30 p.m. on 24 December in their hotel in the Dhaka suburb of Nawabganj where they were staying while covering the last days of the campaign.
Armed with steel rods and hockey sticks, the assailants vandalized about 15 vehicles belonging to the two media outlets before going after the journalists, some of whom managed to barricade themselves in rooms on the third floor.
The police took several hours to respond to their calls for help. Jugantor said one of its reporters, Shamim Khan, has been missing ever since the attack. Several victims said the assailants were members of a youth organization linked to the ruling Awami League.
“This latest episode of extreme brutality against journalists has already destroyed the credibility of the results of Sunday’s elections,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“By using violence almost systematically to intimidate over-curious journalists and by trying to censor all critical or independent reporting, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government has dealt a fatal blow to press freedom, Bangladeshi democracy and, finally, its own future legitimacy.”
The physical attacks on journalists have been accompanied by efforts to establish a tight grip on the media’s reporting. The Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) yesterday ordered mobile phone and Internet service providers to reduce data speeds to the “2G” levelfrom tomorrow until 31 December.
“This will hit media coverage of the elections badly,” Dhaka Reporters Unity president Elias Hossain told RSF. “Online news portals and media with Facebook pages will be severely affected, and live-streaming on social media will be impossible.”
Such attempts to control and manipulate the dissemination of news and information are worthy of the methods used by totalitarian regimes. Facebook recently reported that it had closed nine pages that were trying to pass themselves off as the official pages of real Bangladeshi media outlets, the BBC Bengali site and Bdnews24.com.
These fake Facebook pages were posting false information and fabricated reports praising the ruling party and undermining the opposition’s credibility. According to Graphika, a Facebook subcontractor, the administrators of these fake Facebook pages were clearly linked to the government.
Earlier this month, the BTRC ordered the blocking of 54 independent and opposition news websites.
Bangladesh is ranked 146th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Index.