Bangladesh’s television talk shows have become the newest means for the ruling Awami League to catch its critics off-guard. In recent weeks, two prominent critics have landed in hot water for what they “said on talk shows”. To deepen the sense of siege, the Cabinet has passed the draft Broadcast Law 2018, which allows the government to jail a person for giving “misleading and false” information on a talk show. The draft legislation comes on the heels of the Digital Security Law, which was put into effect on October 8.

Commentators and common people alike are worried that these laws will further erode the freedom of speech in the country. “It seems the government is coming up with new laws to make sure no one raises their voice,” said the journalist Harun-ur-Rashid, “The recent arrest of Barrister Mainul and the harassment of Dr Zafrullah have created a chilling effect. People are becoming increasingly cautious.”

Buried under cases

Mainul Hosein, prominent lawyer and publisher of the English daily The New Nation, was arrested on October 22 for calling a woman journalist “characterless” on a live talk show. Hosein is a staunch critic of the Awami League.

On the show, aired on the pro-government Channel 71 on October 16, Hosein was asked by Masuda Bhatti, a journalist linked with the Awami League, if he represented the Jamaat-i-Islami, a controversial Islamist party, in talks that recently resulted in the formation of the National Unity Front, an opposition alliance led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Clearly aggrieved by Bhatti’s question, Hosein retorted, “I want to believe you are characterless.”

Hosein was pilloried for the remark and invited several defamation suits. He managed to secure anticipatory bails in three of the cases, including the one filed by Bhatti. But, according to the police, he was not granted bail in a fourth case filed by a woman activist in Rangpur, about 380 km north of the capital Dhaka. So, he was arrested.

Interestingly, Hosein’s arrest came just hours after Sheikh Hasina told women journalists at a press conference to lodge more cases against the lawyer. “You carry on protesting,” the prime minister said. “The law enforcers will do whatever is necessary.”

Since then, the number of legal claims against Hosein has climbed to 12, two of them filed under the Digital Security Act.

Hosein’s case mirrors that of Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, who in 2016 faced 79 cases – 62 for defamation, 17 for sedition – after expressing regret, also on a talk show, for previously publishing reports on uncorroborated corruption allegations against Hasina.

Though Anam was not arrested, he had to crisscross the country to appear for court hearings in 50 of Bangladesh’s 64 judicial districts.

Angering the army

Zafrullah Chowdhury, an adviser to Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s chief, Khaleda Zia, appeared on Shomoi channel on October 10 to discuss the ruling on the August 21 grenade attack cases, delivered earlier that day. Chowdhury, an acclaimed doctor, claimed General Aziz Ahmed had been “court martialled after arms and ammunition were stolen from Chattogram when the army chief was the general officer commanding there”.

Apparently, Chowdhury’s claim was wrong. The Army Headquarters issued a rejoinder saying, “The untrue and irresponsible comment by a renowned person like Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury regarding a serving army chief appears to be completely motivated to belittle a state organisation like the army before the people. No incident of theft or going missing took place in Chattogram during that period. It is especially mentionable that Chief of Army Staff Aziz Ahmed did never face any court martial during his long colorful army career.”

On October 12, Zafrullah was booked for making “false, fabricated, motivated and treasonous” statement against the army chief and the police were asked to investigate him for treason.

Though Chowdhury apologised publicly, claiming he had been under medication when he appeared on the show, he has been slapped with five cases, including for grabbing land and for stealing fruits and fish.

Muzzling the media

The opposition has come out in support of Hosein and Chowdhury. “Both Barrister Mainul and Dr Zafrullah are being harassed with case after case because of their involvements with the National Unity Front alliance,” said Shamsuzzaman Dudu, vice chairman of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

Dudu claimed that on talk shows, people linked with the ruling party often provoke those sympathetic to the opposition so as to get them into legal trouble. “Now they are coming up with the Broadcast Law with jail terms for providing false and misleading information on talk shows,” he added. “This provision will surely be misused.”

The draft Broadcast Law punishes 24 offences, including airing false information, fabricating information regarding the War of Liberation, and circulating rumors in broadcast and online media. Violating the law will invite up to seven years in prison or a hefty fine, or both.

The draft law is just “another measure to muzzle media and reduce the space for dissent”, argued Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor of politics and government at the Illinois State University in the United States.

Together with the Digital Security Act, Riaz said, the new law “will leave no room for airing your views except admiration of the ruling party and its leaders.”

He pointed out that talk shows are meant to offer perspectives and not provide information. “If there are factual inaccuracies, there are ways to offer corrections,” he added. “But the intention of this law is not to offer ‘correct information’, it is to make participants fearful.”

Zafar Sobhan, editor of the English daily Dhaka Tribune expressed concern about how the law would be interpreted and applied. “We can expect people to self-censor, play it safe,” he said. “Silence will reign. For a country with a proud history of dissent, it is a tragedy.”

Josef Benedict, a researcher at Civicus, a global civil society alliance, described the draft Broadcast Law as “extremely worrying”. Civicus has seen how such laws “have been systematically misused by Bangladeshi authorities in recent years to restrict freedom of expression and press freedom”, he said.

The draft legislation contains measures that are “overly broad and vague” and impose “disproportionate sentences and lengthy prison terms for offenders”, Benedict said. “We believe the provision that criminalises ‘presenting and airing misleading and false information on talk shows’ will definitely limit public discourse on critical issues affecting the country, restrict the presentation of dissenting views or ideas and legitimate criticism of public officials,” he added. “Such provisions are incompatible with Bangladesh’s legal obligations under the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which the country ratified in 2000.”

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist based in Dhaka.