Fighting back against the Awami League’s clampdown on democratic space

Fighting back against the Awami League’s clampdown on democratic space

Written by Naila Rafique, Senior Program Officer, Asia programs, Freedom House

Over the past decade, Sheikh Hasina and her Awami League (AL) party have presided over a dramatic deterioration of political rights and civil liberties in Bangladesh. Under Hasina’s leadership, the AL has escalated crackdowns on the opposition, journalists, and civil society groups, introduced regressive legislation curbing freedom of expression, and habitually throttled the internet in an attempt to disrupt antigovernment rallies, intruding on people’s everyday lives. Reflecting these abuses, Bangladesh’s score in both Freedom House’s Freedom in the World and Freedom on the Netindices has declined by at least 10 points since 2014.

The 2024 elections in January, which saw prime minister Hasina secure a fourth consecutive term amid credible allegations of electoral fraud, took place in the context of this troubling trajectory. The AL government has gradually intensified its fight against critics in an exceptional manner, causing significant damage to the already fragile semblance of democracy in the country and virtually eliminating all space for civil society to operate. Yet, identifying opportunities to effect change against the backdrop of another five years of AL rule is crucial. The following outlines three areas where rights and governance in Bangladesh are rapidly eroding, and closes with recommendations for a path forward.

A culture of fear and self-censorship

Bangladesh’s 2023 Cyber Security Act (CSA) drastically restricted online expression while retaining many concerning censorship and surveillance powers of its draconian predecessor, the Digital Security Act (DSA). Over the previous years, thousands of people have been arrested on flimsy charges under their provisions in response to speech perceived as government criticism. Around 4,000 individuals, including journalists and writers, have been charged under these laws since 2018, with journalists and politicians from the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party and journalists accounting for more than 40 percent of documented arrests. Those charged also include the high-profile cases of two civil society leaders and vocal human rights advocates who were arrested in September 2023 over a fact-finding report that documented lethal abuses by security forces.

Notably, both the DSA and CSA were passed a few months ahead of tense election campaigns in 2018 and 2024 respectively. In both cases, the new laws led to a widespread culture of fear and self-censorship by journalists, activists, and others to avoid retribution. This well-founded fear has also undermined the conditions for open political debate ahead of the 2024 elections. Under the DSA and now CSA, the government is permitted to order the removal and blocking of any online information it deems necessary. Newsrooms are increasingly pressured to self-censor, as government authorities demand the removal of news articles from their websites.

Amplified transnational repression

The government has also reached beyond its borders to harass and intimidate human rights advocates and activists abroad. This has included Bangladesh officials employing violence and harassment to repress overseas critics through various tactics of transnational repression. In July 2023, Hasina instructed Bangladesh overseas diplomats to “be vigilant” against anyone spreading “antistate” propaganda so that the international community would not be “misled.” There were also reports that the government attempted to misuse international law enforcement tools for politically motivated purposes against critics outside the country. To date, Bangladesh is one of the 38 countries identified by Freedom House as a perpetrator of transnational repression.

Targeting civil society organizations

The Bangladesh NGO Affairs Bureau has been blocking project approvals and withholding funds for several nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) nationwide, strategically diminishing their effectiveness and hindering their operations through various restrictions. Some local and international NGOs working on human rights issues have even reported regular monitoring by intelligence agencies. The government has further restricted international NGOs by delaying project registrations, issuing cease-and-desist letters, and denying visas. In some instances, banks have refused to release funds to NGOs involved in sensitive governance and rights issues.

These prolonged delays have forced some groups to scale back their activities and could potentially affect funders’ willingness to provide grants to local organizations. Even members of civil society affiliated with the ruling party have reported threats of arrest for publicly criticizing government policies.

Suppression of NGOs has led to a deeply corroded information landscape for national discussions of human rights and governance issues in Bangladesh. This in turn has also led to heavily filtered reporting and understanding of what’s happening in the country among international audiences. Consequently, this could lead to significant misunderstandings about the country’s progress in addressing human rights concerns and the proposal of inadequate solutions to current challenges by international audiences.

Charting the way ahead

To restore the systems that underpin a healthy democracy and rebuild trust in government, stakeholders should take concerted actions within their capacities to push for reform and more transparent treatment of human rights challenges. First, the AL government should reform the problematic clauses of the CSA and ensure that the national legal framework aligns with its commitments under international human rights treaties. In the interim, state officials should invest significant time in restoring trust by supporting speedy, transparent, and fair adjudications of pending cases. If not done, Bangladeshis will continue to lose trust in state institutions, and this could lead to more liberties being taken away with unchecked powers of state officials.

Second, civil society and human rights groups, both local and international, need to continue pushing for human rights-based legislation development and reform. Additionally, the AL leadership needs to make the drastic in-house shift to model transparency, tolerate dissenting voices, openness, and diversity of thought in leadership, outside of the AL dynasty. This approach will expand their support, reduce international pressures and penalties, and build much needed momentum at the start of a new term, even potentially attracting support from opposition-leaning citizens. Decision-making should reflect a wide range of perspectives.

Civil society should provide targeted recommendations and international best practices for more transparent and inclusive governance, including around reforming the CSA and the introduction of new, substantial measures aimed at guaranteeing the integrity and independence of the judicial system. They should be free to provide this input without fear of repercussions by the government.

Lastly, it is vital that the international community is more targeted with its demands and investigations. For example, when countries invoke versions of the Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act to sanction human rights violators, they should target individuals and institutions that have clearly demonstrated systematic corruption, including current leadership. Additionally, continuous clear tracking and public reporting of the government’s clampdown on civil society groups and activists, along with future actions, is vital. Even if it remains uncertain whether such measures will motivate the AL leadership, particularly with their increased support from the governments of India and China, they are important tools nonetheless.

While the election has left a cloud of uncertainty, it has also created opportunities for action: for the government to promote incremental reform and for civil society actors to forge a recharged and rigorous civic space.-Freedom House