As a journalist who doesn’t make calls on a mobile phone, Shahidul Alam is a rarity.
Now he only makes journeys by car, and never travels alone. In fact, he says, he makes sure he is never alone.
Since prosecutors charged him with spreading rumours and false information five years ago, Shahidul says he has tried to minimise what he perceives as threats from the powerful to himself due to his work.
Mr Alam – one of Bangladesh’s most prominent photojournalists – had criticised the government in a TV interview. Police then detained him for 107 days. He says they tortured him during this period – something authorities deny.
‘Worst it’s ever been’
Today, he says the climate for journalists in Bangladesh has declined further.
“It’s the worst it’s ever been. Going back 52 years [when Bangladesh gained independence] – the level of repression has never been this bad,” Shahidul says.
“A culture of fear has led to a degree of self-censorship. So now the repressive forces don’t need to be doing a lot on their own.”
Shahidul says that threats of killings, physical violence and repressive use of laws are some of the pressures on journalists.
The section of the law that he’s charged under has now been repealed, but he still faces ongoing proceedings. Mr Alam says that there is no case for him to answer and that the prosecution has failed to provide any evidence.
“It is a way to stop me from being effective. And the fact that I still face 14 years in prison is the sword that hangs over me. It is designed to intimidate.”
Mr Alam feels some protection due to having a high profile. But journalists without that face similar threats.
In this media climate, embassies of Media Freedom Coalition member states based in Bangladesh have acted. In February, building on their work promoting human rights and media freedom over many years, the embassies launched a Diplomatic Network, which acts as a platform to push for greater media freedom.
In February 2023 the US embassy hosted a launch event and currently plays a coordinating role. Advancing human rights – including press freedom – is a cornerstone of the US’ foreign policy.
The network is monitoring the safety of journalists, engaging with the media, civil society and government, and being visible in public. That has included joint statements expressing concern over deaths, harassment and intimidation of journalists, as well as the government revoking an opposition news outlet’s publishing licence. This, in turn, has generated national news coverage – the MFC Secretariat has recorded over 20 national news stories covering the embassies’ joint statements during 2023.
In some cases of detained and attacked journalists, joint statements within a day or two of incidents happening are believed by journalists in-country to have expedited a bail hearing or curtailed violence.
Embassies of MFC members in Bangladesh also initiated a TV discussion programme on gender equality in the media on the national Channel-i. The Dutch and Swedish Ambassadors appeared on the programme, as did prominent Bangladeshi women journalists.
Various other member embassies have been involved in the network. Countries signing public statements or op-eds have included Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.
Network amplifies voices
According to the US embassy in Dhaka, being coalition members opens the door to bringing countries together, and working jointly their voices are amplified. Additionally, membership means embassies are secure in knowing they can put out statements whose principles their country has already backed as part of the coalition.
Sophia Meulenberg, a Political Officer at the US embassy says: “What truly matters is that the statements have an impact on what journalists feel day-to-day, they are more emboldened to speak out and feel like the international community has their back in these really difficult situations.
“We obviously know that that is a different calculation for each journalist. And the risk here is very significant. But we do hope that we are at least standing in solidarity with them.”
Bulbul Ahsan, the Editor-in-Chief of TV Today and an activist for media freedom argues that pressures come from parts of the government, political parties, private sector, judiciary and media owners themselves.
“Ownership is a major problem”, he says, as big media proprietors don’t want to annoy the government and have their businesses in other industries impacted.
The Digital Security Act has been a prominent concern for rights groups, who have called it draconian, and highlighted how it provides wide powers of arrest and long-sentences for crimes including “propaganda” against the “spirit of the liberation war” or the “father of the nation”. The father of the nation is the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina’s, father.
The UN has reported that authorities have charged more than 2,000 people under the act since it came into force in October 2018.
“The [embassy] network creates an environment of additional support for the media system. They can discuss these issues with the government and lawmakers,” Mr Ahsan says.
“It supplements human rights and media rights groups, allowing local organisations to raise their voice more freely.
“And if any statement comes from the embassies’ side, the government takes it more seriously than from a local organisation.”
A matter of security
With general elections slated for January next year, journalists say tension is mounting.
Reporters Without Borders this year rated Bangladesh as 163rd out of 180 countries in its World Press Freedom Index, while according to the latest monitoring report from the International Press Institute, “journalists in Bangladesh continue to operate in a hostile and dangerous environment”.
The government has denied that it inhibits freedom of expression or uses any repressive tactics towards journalists.
Ayesha Kabir is the Head of the English website of the privately-owned Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s leading daily newspaper, from which journalists and editors have been held, charged, and suffered alleged violence.
The embassy network has spoken to Ayesha, as well as other journalists, to hear their concerns and ask questions about the conditions they face.
“It means a lot,” Ayesha says, “because there is so much propaganda against a free press and as journalists we are trying to do something honestly and professionally. Sometimes it can be frustrating – you wonder if the rest of the world understands or not.
“So, on one level, the network’s outreach is reassuring.
“On another level it’s a matter of security: that the diplomatic circle knows about what’s happening and when they are vocal perhaps those perpetrating intimidation will think twice before they act against us.”
The network should be replicable elsewhere, Ms Meulenberg says.
“In general this is a vehicle for doing and saying things that many of these embassies would already say. It is able to be a catalyst.
“It just takes an embassy to step in, build consensus with other embassies, and get additional support. It takes time and effort certainly but the collective impact is great.”
Maintaining that work is key for Ayesha, Shahidul and other journalists, who know that the stakes are high.
“We are at a crossroads,” Shahidul says.
“What the embassies are able to do, it’s imperative they do now. Hopefully, it will prevent more deaths.”