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Is Bangladesh's media freedom deteriorating?

An attack on a prominent Bangladeshi editor, along with increased incidents of hacking and censorship, are all signs of an "imperiled" political environment in the run-up to Bangladesh's general election this autumn.

Mahmudur Rahman is the acting editor of Bangladesh's pro-opposition newspaper Amar Dessh. On Sunday, as he was leaving a court hearing over a defamation case in the western town of Kushtia, Rahman was brutally attacked by student activists from the ruling Awami League party.

"It was a brutal attack. [They] hit the right side of his head with a brick," Rahman's colleague Mohammad Abdullah told the AFP news agency. Images of a bloodied Rahman went viral on social media after the attack.  

International media observers condemned the attack on Rahman, who is a critic of Bangladesh's government and has been politically active in the past.

Read more: Is Bangladesh becoming an autocracy?

"The lynching that targeted a prominent journalist like Mahmudur Rahman is likely to create a devastating chilling effect among those who dare to question the government and the ruling party," Daniel Bastard, head of Asia-Pacific desk at Reporters without Borders, said in a statement.

"Journalists must stand firm against this blatant case of intimidation," he said.

Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, said the attack pointed to a "rising climate of intolerance" in Bangladesh.

"Ultimately, the attack is a reminder that in Bangladesh, democracy is very much imperiled," he said.

No stranger to controversy

While international observers strongly condemned the attack on Rahman, there were mixed reactions among local analysts.

Fahmidul Haq, a professor of mass communication and journalism at Dhaka University, told DW that the attack had a political dimension. 

"It is also an attack on the media industry. It's an attack on the freedom of the press," he said, adding that Rahman had been involved with controversy in the past.

"His newspaper's role in the 2013 Shahbag protest, one of the biggest movements in the country to demand maximum punishment for war criminals, was very negative and published fake news on numerous occasions," said Haq. 

Read more: Bangladesh blogger: the wrath of a father demanding justice for his son's murder

Rahman's pro-opposition newspaper, Amar Desh, was shut down by the government in 2013 for inciting religious tension. It published numerous articles about bloggers who were critical of Islam, expressed atheist views and were involved in the Shahbag protests.

The protest was characterized as a movement against Islam by the newspaper, which triggered counter-protests by religious fundamentalists against the bloggers.

"Rahman was never a professional journalist. He was a politician who got himself appointed as the acting editor of a newspaper with a purpose other than journalism," said Syed Ashfaqul Haque, the executive editor of the Daily Star, Bangladesh's most popular English newspaper.

"I cannot help but mention that he once abused his media organization to propagate against bloggers and free-thinkers, leading to the killing of over a dozen youth."

Rahman was arrested in April 2013, and spent more than three years in jail in periods of solitary detention. He was released in November 2016. He faces around 80 charges, including sedition, torching of vehicles, involvement in a plot to kill the son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, as well as inciting religious tension.

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Bloggers in Bangladesh

Widespread problems for the media

The attack on Rahman is only one of a few recent incidents that have shocked Bangladeshi media.

In another recent event, Toufique Imrose Khalidi, the editor-in-chief of Bangladesh's most popular online newspaper - bdnews24.com, reported that attempts had been made to hack into his Facebook account.

Using sophisticated technology, a hacker reportedly tried to download data from Khalidi's Facebook activities. It is currently unclear if the hacker was successful.

Read more: US blogger's killing 'exposes level of political volatility' in Bangladesh

Bangladesh: the limits of art in a climate of fear

Additionally, Khalidi's newspaper was blocked for a few hours on June 18 by Bangladesh's regulatory authority without any official reason.

Some of the newspaper's readers pointed out on social media that a report about Bangladesh's newly appointed military chief might have caused the brief website closure.

The report contained a paragraph about the younger brother of the military chief, who was a notorious criminal and had been released from jail by presidential clemency just a few weeks before his elder brother was appointed as the military chief.

The paragraph was removed and the newspaper was later unblocked.

A similar incident happened with The Daily Star newspaper. The daily's website was blocked for 22 hours on June 2 after it published a report about a municipal councilor in the southeastern city of Cox's Bazar who, according to the police, was a drug dealer and had been killed in a shootout. It was reported that the man was, in fact, a victim of an extrajudicial execution.

"There is a tendency in Bangladesh that the military and the Awami League doesn't tolerate any criticism from the media," said Daniel Bastard. "Obviously some people don't want journalists to investigate certain issues."

Fahmidul Haq has a similar perspective. "Difference of opinion is not welcomed by the rulers. In an authoritarian climate, every national institution is acting intolerantly towards free media," he said. 

'Self-censorship' on the rise

According to rights group Reporters without Borders, media self-censorship is growing in Bangladesh as a result of the "endemic violence" against journalists and media outlets, and the "almost systematic impunity" enjoyed by those responsible.

Professor Haq sees a sharp rise of self-censorship in his country. "Most broadcast media are government-leaning and they self-censor their reports," he said.

Read more: Blogger killings leading to 'self-censorship' in Bangladesh

Declining terror attacks: Why Bangladesh can't afford to be complacent

"Some newspapers are critical towards the government, but they are also under pressure. Even for them, self-censorship is applicable," added Faq.  

According to a report by the British NGO Article 19, one journalist was killed, 28 suffered severe injuries and a further 75 suffered severe assaults last year.

Experts fear that the situation could get worse as Bangladesh's national election is scheduled to take place later this year.

"It appears that Bangladesh may be taking a tactic out of Pakistan's book and is trying to control media narratives in the lead-up to the key national elections," said Michael Kugelman.

"In Bangladesh, as in so many other countries, some brave dissidents continue to speak out even as the walls start to close in around them," he said, adding that if these attacks are a new precedent, then it could have a "chilling effect" with implications for local media's coverage of the election.

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