Impunity and Harsh Laws Trouble Journalists in South Asia as Protesters March on the U.N. For Release of Bangladeshi Journalist

A student walks by a board displaying names of freedom fighters. The New Digital Security Act 2018 makes speaking against any freedom fighter leader a punishable offence. Credit: Stella Paul/IPS

By Stella Paul
HYDERBAD, Sep 28 2018 (IPS)

It has been six and half years since the killing of Bangladeshi journalists Meherun Runi and Sagar Sarwar in Dhaka. Runi, a senior reporter from the private TV channel ATN Bangla, and her husband Sarwar, news editor from Maasranga TV, were hacked to death at their home on Feb. 11, 2012.

Years later, with no official updates on the progress of the investigation, their families wait for justice as the fear of impunity looms large.

The atmosphere in Bangladesh’s journalism today is one of trepidation and caution.

It has witnessed a series of attacks against students and journalists in the capital city of Dhaka, followed by the passing of a cyber law that has come under scathing criticism.

The Digital Security Bill 2018, passed on Sept. 19 has been strongly criticised by journalists, who have called it a tool designed to gag the press and freedom of speech.

The draft bill had been actually introduced last year, and there had been strong demands for amending several provisions of the law. The government had publicly promised to consider the demands. However, on the advice of the law makers, the government decided to go ahead without any changes and passed it last week. 

IPS Journalists worldwide stand in solidarity for press freedom and join the Nobel Laureates and 17 eminent global citizens, and British MP Tulip Siddiq as they call for the immediate release of Shahidul Alam. IPS also calls for the release of journalists who have been detained in the course of duty across the globe, including those in the Congo, Turkey, and Myanmar.

IPS has noted with concern the increasingly repressive environment that our reporters are working in and call on governments to review their media laws and support press freedom. It is incredibly important for IPS that our reporters are safe as they do their work in holding governments and institutions to account.

One of the most worrying provisions of the law (section 43) is that it allows the police to arrest or search individuals without a warrant.

Other provisions of the law includes 14 years of imprisonment for anyone who commits any crime or assists anyone in committing crimes using a computer, digital device, computer network, digital network or any other electronic medium.

As expected, the new law has come under scathing criticism of the media.

“The act goes against the spirit of the Liberation War. Independent journalism will be under threat in the coming days. We thought the government would accept our [Sampadak Parishad’s] suggestions for the sake of independent journalism, freedom of expression and free thinking, but it did not,” said Naem Nizam, editor of Bengali news daily Bangladesh Pratidin, in a strongly-worded public statement.

The Editor’s Council, known as Shampadak Parishad, also was unanimous in labelling the law as a threat to press freedom and independent media in the country.

To protest against the law, the council has called all journalists and media bodies to join a human chain on Sept. 29 in Dhaka.

The legislation “would violate constitutional guarantees of freedom of the press, and would create extensive legal dangers for journalists in the normal course of carrying out their professional activities,” Steven Butler, the Asia programme coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said in a statement.

Interestingly, the new law was originally developed in response to the media’s demand for scrapping Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act, 2006—a broad law against electronic communication.

Under Section 57, intentionally posting false, provocative, indecent or sensitive information on websites or any electronic platforms that was defamatory, and can disrupt the country’s law and order situation, or hurt religious sentiments, is a punishable offence, with a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment and a fine of USD120,000.

It was under this section 57 that Shahidul Alam, an award-winning independent photographer, was arrested.

Alam was arrested on Aug. 5 from his home in Dhaka and has been charged with inciting violence by making provocative statements in the media. He has been held without bail since the arrest, despite repeated appeals by the media, human rights groups and the international community for his release.

IPS contacted several local journalists and academics but everyone declined to comment on the issue of Alam’s arrest. However, last month, British MP Tulip Siddiq, and the niece of Bangladesh prime minister Sheikh Hasina, called on her aunt to release Alam saying the situation was “deeply distressing and should end immediately”.

Protestors demanded the unconditional release of Shahidul Alam, and for charges against him, and others held in similar circumstances, to be dropped. Courtesy: Salim Hasbini

Alam’s family organised a protest in New York on Sept. 27 to coincide with prime minister Hasina’s address to the United Nations General Assembly.

The protest was endorsed by human rights groups and journalist associations, rights activist Kerry Kennedy, actress/activist Sharon Stone, and attended by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, among others.

At the demonstration, Columbia University professor Gayatri Spivak pointed out, “What is really important for the state is that if one silences the creative artists and intellectuals, then the conscience of the state is killed because its the role of the creatives artists and intellectuals to make constructive criticism so that the state can be a real democracy.”

According to Meenakshi Ganguly, Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), the Bangladesh government wants to show that no one who dares criticise or challenge its actions will be spared.

“Newspaper editors face being charged with criminal defamation and sedition. Journalists and broadcasters are routinely under pressure from the authorities to restrain criticism of the government,” Ganguly said.

“As a photographer, Alam documents the truth; his work and his voice matter now more than ever,” she said. 

In Bangladesh, the media has been demanding the scrapping of Section 57, explains Afroja Shoma, an assistant professor of Media and Mass Communication at American International University of Bangladesh.

“However, the Digital Security Act left this untouched and so this new law is nothing but ‘old wine in a new bottle,’” Shoma told IPS.

“Section 57, in the past, has been misused several times. The media wanted the government to scrap this. The government then brought this whole new law [the Digital Security Bill 2018]. But it has retained the same old provisions of the section 57. As a result, the law has created an atmosphere of fear among the journalists of the country,” said Shoma.

Digital security breeding insecurity

However, digital laws are not just threatening press freedom in Bangladesh. Several countries in south Asia have had similar punitive laws passed.

India had its own “Section 57” known as the Section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000.

Section 66A in the act made provisions for “punishment for sending offensive messages through communication service” and included information shared via a “computer resource or a communication device” known to be “false, but for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, danger, obstruction, insult, injury, criminal intimidation, enmity, hatred or ill will.”

In March 2015, the Supreme Court of India struck it down, calling it “open ended, undefined, and vague.”

However, of late, India has also seen a spate of vicious attacks on journalists. These include the murder of journalists Gauri Lankesh and Shujat Bukhari as well as online attacks on investigative journalist Rana Ayyub who authored the book Gujarat Files. No arrests have been made in any of these cases so far.

Nepal, a country not known for attacks on the press, has just passed a new law  that makes sharing confidential information an offence resulting in a prison sentence. The code criminalises recording and listening to conversations between two or more people without the consent of the persons involved, as well as disclosing private information without permission, including private information on public figures.

Under the law, a journalist could face fines of up to 30,000 rupees (USD270) and imprisonment of up to three years, according to the CPJ. The CPJ has released a statement asking the government to repeal or amend the law.

Badri Sigdel, Nepal’s National Press Union president, said in a recent press statement: “The NPU condemns the Act with provisions that restrict journalists to report, write and take photographs. Such restrictions are against the democratic norms and values; and indicate towards authoritarianism. The NPU demands immediate amendment in the unacceptable provisions of the law.”

Pakistan, which ranks 139 in the Press Freedom Index (India ranks 138, while Bangladesh and Nepal rank 146 and 106 respectively), has witnessed the killings of five journalists while working between May 1, 2017 to Apr. 1, 2018.

Also, according to a study by local media watchdog the Freedom Network there have been:

• 11 cases of attempted kidnapping or abduction,

• 39 illegal detention and arrest,

• 58 physical assault and vandalism,

• and 23 occurrences of verbal and written threats.

The country has just, however, drafted the Journalists Welfare and Protection Bill, 2017, which aims to ensure safety and protection of journalists. The draft, once adopted, will be the first in the region to provide physical protection, justice and financial assistance for all working journalists—both permanent and contractual.


Europe Leads the Way in Development Index 2018

Anita Käppeli is European Outreach Director at the Center for Global Development (CGD) & Lee Robinson is a researcher at the Center for Global Development.

By Anita Käppeli and Lee Robinson
WASHINGTON DC, Sep 27 2018 (IPS)

We just published the Commitment to Development Index (CDI) 2018, which ranks 27 of the world’s richest countries on how well their policies help the more than five billion people living in poorer countries.

European countries dominate this year’s CDI, occupying the top 12 positions in the Index and with Sweden claiming the #1 spot. Here, we look at what these countries are doing particularly well in the past year to support the world’s poor, and where European leaders can still learn from others.

Each year, we look at policies beyond aid (only one of seven policy areas included in our analysis). We also measure policy efforts of rich countries in the areas of finance, technology, environment, trade, security and migration.

Within each of these seven components, countries are measured on how their domestic policies and actions support poor countries in their efforts to build prosperity, good governance, and security. We encourage you to explore the detailed results with our interactive tool below.



Anita Käppeli
Director of Policy Outreach, Europe

Sweden shows biggest commitment to development
Sweden makes it to the top this year, a first since 2011, relegating its neighbors Denmark and Finland to second and joint-third (with Germany) respectively. Sweden’s top performance was driven by excellent scores on foreign aid quantity and quality, environment, and trade.

It also led the migration ranking, with a high share of refugees and strong policies to help integrate migrants. By accepting a relatively large share of migrants from poorer countries, Sweden contributes to poverty reduction and income redistribution as working abroad enables migrants to earn higher incomes and gain valuable skills, while at the same time filling gaps in the local labor market.

Migrants contribute to Sweden’s booming economy, which has the highest share of employment among EU-countries (Eurostat data, 2004-2017). However, as the recent election demonstrates, while Sweden’s integration policies are among the best of all the countries evaluated by the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX), challenges remain and the country’s openness to migrants has resulted in a political backlash. It remains to be seen how this will affect the country’s migration policies moving forward.

Denmark comes second in this year’s CDI, performing very well on aid and leading on the security component. It demonstrates that even small countries can support peace and international security beyond their borders.

Denmark punches above its weight on the international stage by contributing disproportionately to international peacekeeping and sea lanes protection. Further, it fully supports the international security regime through ratification of all treaties assessed in the CDI and acts coherently by having very low arms exports to poor and undemocratic countries.

However, it could learn from its neighbor Sweden by putting in place a more open and welcoming migration policy. This also applies to Finland, which comes joint-third with performances above average on all components except migration.

Germany proves economic powers can also be development drivers
For the first time since the Center for Global Development started producing the CDI in 2003, a G7-country has made it to the top three. Germany comes joint third with Finland, demonstrating that even the largest economies in the world can put domestic policies in place that also benefit poorer countries.

The country’s top score was driven by its development-friendly policies on trade and migration. Germany ranked second in migration due to the acceptance of an exceptional number of migrants from poorer countries. It also came second on trade, with the most efficient trade logistics of all CDI countries and by being a leader on openness to services trade.

Still, it is penalized for its relatively large EU agricultural subsidies, and has room to learn from its G7-peers Canada (ranking 17th overall) and the United States (ranking 23rd overall) which each provide significantly smaller agricultural subsidies. Germany was held back from the top overall position by its moderate scores on aid and security policies.

European development policies are among the best
European countries take up the first 12 positions on the CDI, highlighting European leadership on development issues. France comes in seventh this year, being one of the few countries to increase its aid spending (by 0.05 percent to 0.43 percent of gross national income [GNI]).

This development conforms with President Macron’s pledge to increase ODA-spending to 0.55 percent/GNI by 2022, which he renewed this past August. While France still has room for improvement on aid quality, it does particularly well on security and finance. Ranking third on the finance component, France demonstrates that a successful and powerful economy can at the same time be a transparent financial jurisdiction.

The United Kingdom, coming in eighth place, is the third G7 country in the top 10, scoring especially well on trade and security. The UK is one of the few countries meeting the international commitment of 0.7 percent of GNI spent on aid, but still ranks in the lower end of the table on migration and technology.

On the latter, it could learn from Portugal, ranking ninth overall and third on technology, with its heavy investments in Research and Development (R&D). The “Benelux” trio—Belgium, Netherlands, and Luxembourg—complete the top 10.

The Netherlands and Luxembourg share position five and Belgium ranks 10th. All three countries have smart policy designs in place: Luxembourg tops the aid component; the Netherlands the trade component; and Belgium the finance component.

Australia and Japan: two countries on the rise
Australia and Japan are among the countries which have improved notably since the 2017 publication. Australia ranks 14th in this year’s CDI, with good migration policies and a top-three position in the trade ranking. Australia is a CDI leader in providing equal access to goods from developing countries.

It has the second-lowest income weighted tariff rate and the second-lowest agricultural subsidies. Its improvement by four positions from last year was propelled by improvements in its foreign aid policy. However, Australia lags on environment, having the highest greenhouse gas emissions of all 27 CDI-countries. By increasing its gasoline taxes, which are currently the second lowest after the United States,

Australia could take a simple step to help fighting climate change—an issue with a disproportionately damaging effect on people in poorer countries.

While it comes in 24th this year, it is worth noting that Japan rose 10 slots in this year’s trade ranking to 15th place. Japan scored well on measures of customs speed and trading infrastructure. And while Japan’s tariffs are high relative to other advanced economies, they are reduced for many lower income trading partners. More on how this year’s trade component and Japan’s results can be found here.

The CDI demonstrates how we all benefit from good policies.
In times of fading commitment to multilateralism and the threat of increasing protectionism, this year’s CDI findings demonstrate that all countries can do more to put coherent, development-friendly domestic policies in place. They also serve as a reminder that advanced economies’ policies across a wide range of sectors have a lasting impact on people in poorer countries and that their well-being is in everyone’s best interest.

Many European countries have recognised the benefits of mutual development, but with billions left in poverty worldwide, high inequality levels and insufficient provision of global public goods, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

More trade, innovation, and investment, but also a reduction in damaging spill-overs of instability in other parts of the world—triggered by violence, conflict, and climate change—will benefit us all directly.