Bangladesh is scheduled to hold general elections by January 2024. Amid questions over the potential legitimacy of the elections, clashes are already on the rise both between and within the political parties, and journalists have frequently been caught in the crosshairs. Ahead of the upcoming election, Bangladeshi police have procured large amounts of shotgun bullets, tear gas shells, sound grenades, and sniper rifles amid expectations of surging violence.
Unfortunately, violence against journalists is commonplace in Bangladesh, particularly for those covering politics or elections, according to CPJ research. In June, Jamalpur-based journalist Golam Rabbani Nadim was beaten to death in retaliation for a series of reports about a local politician and regional leader of the ruling Awami League party. CPJ has documented numerous incidents of violence against journalists so far in 2023, including the arrest and alleged electrocution of Satkhira-based journalist Raghunath Kha and the abduction and severe beating of Rangunia-based journalist Abu Azad.
Journalists targeted under the country’s Digital Security Act have faced arrest and disappearance in addition to alleged torture while in state custody. In August 2023, the government announced the law would be replaced by a new Cyber Security Act, which human rights advocates fear will be used to continue cracking down on dissent. In September, the Cyber Security Act was passed into law.
A recent survey of 18 Bangladeshi journalists conducted by CPJ to understand their safety concerns ahead of the 2024 election revealed:
- 100% of respondents are worried about the threat of arrest/detention
- 94% feel online harassment and misinformation are a serious concern
- 94% are concerned about being physically assaulted and 72% about being abducted
- 83% are worried about government surveillance
Journalists covering the election are navigating an increasingly dangerous reporting environment. That’s why we’ve assembled these resources to help journalists prepare, mitigate, and manage the risks as they work to get the story out.
Contacts and resources
Journalists requiring assistance can contact CPJ Emergencies via [email protected] and can access all of CPJ’s safety resources via WhatsApp at +1 206 590 6191
In addition, CPJ’s Resource Center has additional information and tools for pre-assignment preparation as well as assistance journalists may need during or after coverage.
Editor’s safety checklist
Editors and newsrooms may assign stories to journalists at short notice in the run-up to, during, and after the election. This checklist includes key questions and steps to consider to reduce risk for staff.
Keep in mind that journalists are at risk of being targeted by surveillance software and tools. This includes IMSI catchers, which are used to intercept mobile phone communications, and surveillance vans with sophisticated tracking software used to target cell phones. Bangladeshi authorities have acquired a range of technology for targeting mobile phones, including software from Cellebrite, the Israeli digital intelligence company, that can be used to hack phones, as well as a surveillance and hacking system created by Picsix that can be used to intercept phone transmissions, according to reports by Haaretz and Al-Jazeera.
- Are your staff experienced enough for the assignment?
- Does the profile, sex, religion, or ethnicity of any staff make them a possible target, especially if they’re reporting from a potentially hostile event? For example, an election protest.
- Are your staff fit enough for the assignment, and have you discussed any health issues that could affect them during the assignment?
- Does the specific role of any staff put them at more risk? For example, photojournalists who work closer to the action.
- Have any of the staff on assignment been threatened by the individuals or parties being covered?
Equipment and transport
- If violent protests are likely, have you made available special protective equipment, such as safety helmets, safety goggles, body armor, tear gas respirators, and medical kits? Do staff know how to use such equipment properly?
- Are you staff driving themselves, and is their vehicle roadworthy and appropriate?
- Have you identified how you will communicate with the team and how they will remove themselves from a situation if necessary?
- Despite a reduced risk of COVID-19 exposure, have you discussed the health risks with your staff and provided them with good quality face masks and alcohol-based hand sanitizer?
- Have you recorded and securely saved the emergency contact details of all staff being deployed?
- Do all of your staff have the appropriate accreditation, press passes, or a letter indicating they work for your organization?
- Have you considered the level of risk that your team may be exposed to? Is the level of risk acceptable in comparison to the editorial gain?
- Is the team correctly insured, and have you put in place appropriate medical coverage?
- Have you identified the local medical facilities in case of injury and made team members aware of the details?
- Have you considered and discussed the possibility of long-term trauma-related stress?
Digital Safety: Basic preparedness
While covering an election, journalists are likely to face a wide range of threats, including device seizure, digital surveillance, increased levels of online abuse, and restricted access to the internet. The following guidance will help journalists to be more secure.
Secure your online accounts by turning on two-factor authentication (2FA). This will help protect your accounts from being hacked. Two-factor authentication can be turned on in the privacy and security settings sections of most online accounts. Once activated, you will be required to input a code to log into your account, as well as an email and password. To receive this code, you can use an app, such as Authy.
Any online service offering 2FA should also offer backup codes to use, in case you are unable to access the account using your form of 2FA. These are one-time use codes that you can submit instead of receiving a code to your phone or app. Ensure you keep a copy of these backup codes. You can print them out or write them down and store them somewhere safe.
In addition to using 2FA, create long passwords of more than 15 characters for each of your accounts. The longer your password, the more difficult it is for people to hack into your accounts by guessing or using an algorithm.
Your password can be a mix of numbers, symbols, and letters, or a collection of words that bear no relation to each other, such as elephanticecreamswimmingtelephone. Do not reuse passwords or include in your password personal information that can easily be found online, such as your date of birth.
Consider using a password manager to create, store, and autofill passwords on websites. Research all password managers to see which is the best fit for you. Create a long, unique password for your password manager. If you are not able to use a password manager, consider writing your passwords down and keeping them somewhere safe. This may not be a safe option for journalists who travel a lot, or who are at risk of detention or of having their home searched.
Regularly review the “account activity” section of each of your accounts. This is normally found in the “settings” section. This will reveal if devices you don’t recognize are logged into your accounts. If a device you don’t recognize is logged in, you should immediately log your account out of that particular device. You may wish to take a screenshot for your own records before logging out.
Avoid accessing your accounts on shared computers, for example, at an internet cafe. If you have no choice, log out immediately afterwards and erase your browsing history.
Where possible, use end-to-end encrypted messaging services, such as WhatsApp or Signal, to communicate with colleagues and sources. If needed, set messages to delete after a certain timeframe. Ensure that your messaging account is secured with a PIN lock.
During previous elections, Bangladeshi authorities have ordered internet slowdowns, slowing down journalists from being able to file stories or communicate with sources and colleagues.
Prepare for a partial internet shutdown by creating a plan with your newsroom. Detail how and when you will meet in person, and how you will document and transmit information to editors without using the internet. Consider sharing landline contact details, but be aware that landline calls are insecure and should not be used for sensitive conversations.
Install a VPN on your devices to help access sites if they become blocked. Research local laws around using VPNs, since they are illegal in some countries. Also look into which VPN provider has previously worked best during a partial internet shutdown.
Digital Safety: Securing devices
Journalists are likely to be using their mobile phone for reporting and filing stories as well as being in contact with colleagues and sources. This has digital security implications, if journalists are detained and their phones are seized or broken. Before going out on assignment, it is good practice to:
- Know what information is on your phone or computer and how that could put you or others at risk if you are detained and your device is taken and searched.
- Before going out to report, back up your phone to the cloud or to an external hard drive. Remove or limit access to any sensitive or personal data, such as work documents and family photos, from the device you are carrying.
- Log out of any accounts and apps that you will not be using while reporting and remove them from your phone. Log out of browsers and clear your browsing history. This will better protect your accounts from being accessed should your phone be taken and searched.
- Password protect all your devices and set them up to remote wipe before going out to report. Remote wipe will work only with an internet connection. Avoid using biometrics, such as your fingerprint, to unlock your phone, as this can make access to your device easier should you be detained.
- Take as few devices with you as possible. If you have spare devices, then use them and leave personal or work devices behind.
- If you use an Android phone, consider turning on encryption. New iPhones have encryption as standard. Check the laws regarding encryption use.
Digital Safety: Online harassment and misinformation campaigns
Online harassment, including targeted online campaigns, is likely to increase during the election period. Media workers are often targeted by online attackers who want to discredit the journalist and their work. This can often involve coordinated harassment and misinformation campaigns that leave the journalist unable to use social media, essentially forcing them offline. Protecting against online attacks is not easy. However, there are steps that journalists can take to better protect themselves and their accounts.
Online harassers will often use personal information from your social media accounts to target and harass you. Take the following steps to better protect your accounts and your data:
- Read the section on basic preparedness at the start of this guide to learn how to secure your accounts using 2FA, and how to create secure passwords.
- Ideally, have separate social media accounts for work and for personal use. For example, if you use Facebook for work, ensure that you remove or restrict access to personal photos and other data.
- Review your privacy settings for each account and ensure you know who has access to your data, including photos. Remove or hide personal information, such as your date of birth and personal contact details.
- Look through your accounts and remove any photos or images that could be manipulated and used in a way to discredit you. This is a common technique used by online harassers.
- Monitor your accounts for signs of increasing harassment or indications that a digital threat could become a physical threat. Be aware that certain stories are likely to attract higher levels of harassment.
- Speak with family and friends about online harassment. Abusers often obtain information about journalists via the social media accounts of their relatives and social circle. Consider asking people to remove photos of you from their sites or lock down their accounts.
- Speak with your media outlet about online harassment and have a plan of action in place if abuse becomes serious.
During an attack
- Check the security of your accounts. Ensure that you have long passwords for each account and that two-factor authentication is on.
- Consider turning your account to private and going offline for a while until the harassment calms down.
- Try not to engage with online harassers, as this can make the situation worse.
- Try to ascertain who is behind the attack and their motives. The online attack may be linked to a story you have recently published.
- Journalists should consider reporting any abusive or threatening behavior to the social media company and keep a record of your contact with these companies.
- Document any comments or images that are of concern, including taking screenshots of the activity, the time, date, and social media handle of the abuser. This information may be useful at a later date if you need to show it to your news organization, editor, any organizations that defend freedom of expression, or, if helpful, the authorities.
- Inform your family, employees, and friends that you are being harassed online. Adversaries will often contact family members and your workplace and send them information or images in an attempt to damage your reputation.
- You may want to block or mute those who are harassing you online.
- Review your social media accounts for comments that may indicate that an online threat is about to turn into a physical threat. This could include people posting your address online (known as doxxing) and calling on others to attack you, as well as increased harassment from a particular individual.
- Online harassment can be an isolating experience. Ensure that you have a support network to assist you. In a best-case scenario, this will include your employer.
Digital Safety: Securing and storing materials
It is important to have good protocols around the storing and securing of materials during election times. If a journalist is detained, their devices may be taken and searched, which could have serious consequences for the journalist and their sources. Devices can also be broken or stolen while out covering the election, which may lead to the loss of information if they are not backed up.
- Review what information is stored on your devices, including phones and computers. Anything that puts you at risk or contains sensitive information should be backed up and deleted. There are ways to recover deleted information, so anything that is very sensitive will need to be permanently erased using a specific computer program, rather than just deleted.
- When reviewing content on a smartphone, you should check information stored on the phone (the hardware) as well as information stored in the cloud (Google Photos or iCloud).
- Check the content in messaging apps, such as WhatsApp. Journalists should save and then delete any information that puts them at risk. Be aware that WhatsApp backs up all content to the cloud service linked to the account, such as iCloud or Google Drive.
- Think about where you want to back up information. You will need to decide whether it is safer to keep your materials in the cloud or on an external hard or flash drive.
- Journalists should regularly move material off their devices and save it on the backup option of their choice. This will ensure that if your devices are taken or stolen, then you have a copy of the information.
- It is a good idea to encrypt any information that you back up. You can do that by encrypting your external hard drive or flash drive. You can also turn on encryption for your devices. Journalists should review the law in the country in which they are working to ensure they are aware of any legalities around the use of encryption.
- If you suspect that you may be a target and that an adversary may want to steal your devices, including external hard drives, then you should keep your hard drive in a place other than your home.
- Put a PIN lock on all your devices. The longer the PIN, the more difficult it is to crack.
- Set up your phone or computer to remote wipe in advance. This function allows you to erase devices remotely, for example if authorities take them. This will only work if the device is able to connect to the internet.
- If you are taking photos or videos while on assignment and you are concerned that your device may be taken and searched, set your devices to back up to the cloud automatically and ensure that the cloud account is secured by a long password and that 2FA is turned on. You may also send photos and videos to yourself or others via WhatsApp or Signal. Be aware that there are limits on the size of video that can be sent via these messaging apps. After you have uploaded or sent the images, you should ensure you delete them from the device.
Physical Safety: Arrest, detention, and abduction
In January 2019, Bangladeshi authorities arrested journalist Hedait Hossain Molla, alleging he reported “false information” about the number of votes cast from Khulna during the general election.
If you are on an assignment where there is a high chance of arrest or detention, you need to put the following precautions in place in advance:
- Set up a regular check-in procedure with your office, family, or friends. Let them know how often you plan on checking in, an overdue procedure, and what time they can expect you to return.
- Always ensure you have the correct and valid documents with you (e.g., press credentials, driver’s license, passport, or visa).
- Take a fully charged mobile phone with you, some cash, any medications you might be taking, and basic supplies like drinking water, energy snacks, and warm clothes.
- Dress appropriately for the conditions. If detained by the police, you may be wearing the same clothes for some time.
- Think about how you will react if you are arrested. Be aware that police officers can be heavy-handed and aggressive, depending on the location and situation.
- Identify a legal representative who can be contacted if you are arrested. Store their name and contact number on your phone, and also write it on a piece of paper or your arm.
If you are detained or arrested
- Do your best to stay calm and be respectful. If wearing a hat or sunglasses, take them off. Maintain eye contact with the officer if possible and don’t resist.
- If you are photographing or filming the arrest, it might provoke the police and could lead to your equipment being damaged or confiscated.
- Keep your bag, equipment, and electronic devices within your line of sight whenever possible.
- Make the police aware of any health conditions, such as asthma or diabetes. Tell the police as soon as you are arrested if you are taking medication to control your condition.
- Tell the police if you have a history of mental health problems or if you are having mental health issues at the time.
- If possible, document as much information about the police officers involved as you can, including their names, numbers, departments, and readily identifiable features (e.g., tattoos or facial hair).
- Pay attention to individuals standing around who could be a witness to your arrest. If necessary, ask them to raise the alarm.
- Depending on your location, police officers may try to intimidate you or coerce you into admitting to a crime. Under such circumstances, stick to your story, avoid admitting anything that you did not do, and wait for legal support to arrive.
- If you are assaulted by a police officer, try to keep a record of your injuries, medical treatment received, and any hospital visits. Try to take notes of the names and a visual description of those responsible.
In January 2022, Kamalganj-based journalist Hossain Baksh was abducted and severely beaten, allegedly upon the order of the Awami League-nominated candidate for local union council chairperson, following his reporting outside a polling station for a local union council election.
- When journalists are abducted, it is often related to their reporting on corruption, abuse of power, or what may be perceived as adversarial journalism by those in power or criminals.
- If you have reason to believe you are at risk of abduction (i.e., you have received threats, warnings, or seen evidence of surveillance), you should share this information with colleagues, friends, and family.
- Transit to and from work or after dark is particularly hazardous. Vary your habits and avoid setting patterns at all costs. Do not announce your whereabouts in advance.
- Avoid working alone or after dark.
- If you are concerned, consider setting up a tracking app on your phone and sharing the details with colleagues, friends, or family. The app should have a panic button in case you require assistance.
- Set up a regular check-in procedure with your office, family, or friends. Let them know how often you plan on checking in, an overdue procedure, and what time they can expect you to return. Let them know if you are using a tracking app and what to do if the panic alarm sounds.
- Have an action plan in place should you disappear. For example, ensure your family calls your editor or a colleague who can start making enquiries into your whereabouts with the authorities.
- If there is no assistance forthcoming from the authorities, ensure that your colleagues, friends, and family would raise the alarm with organizations like CPJ as soon as possible.
Physical Safety: Reporting from election rallies, polling stations, and protests
During elections, media workers frequently attend crowded rallies, campaign events, live broadcasts, and protests. In April, Bangladesh’s Election Commission announced it would not allow journalists covering the polls to use motorcycles, access polling stations without prior permission, or broadcast on social media directly from the stations. Journalists in Bangladesh have also been targeted at polling stations, through physical attacks and denial of access. To help minimize the risks at such events, media workers should consider the following safety advice:
Political events and rallies
- Ensure that you have the correct accreditation or press identification. For freelancers, a letter from the commissioning employer is helpful. Have it on display only if it is safe to do so. Avoid using a lanyard around your neck, and instead clip it to a belt or in a transparent velcro pouch around your bicep.
- Wear clothing without media company branding and remove media logos from equipment and vehicles if necessary.
- Avoid wearing sandals or slip-on shoes. Instead, wear sturdy footwear with hard soles, laces, and some kind of ankle support.
- Park your vehicle in a secure location facing the direction of escape, or ensure you have an alternative guaranteed mode of transport.
- Have an escape strategy in case circumstances become hostile. You may need to plan this on arrival, but try and do so in advance. Ensure you identify all available exits from the location.
- If possible, work in a team or buddy up with colleagues or other members of the media.
- Gauge the mood of the crowd. If possible, call other journalists already at the event to assess the mood. Consider going with another reporter or photographer if necessary.
- Inside the event, report from the allocated press area unless it is safe to do otherwise. Ascertain if the security or police will assist if you are in distress.
- If the crowd or speakers are hostile to the media, mentally prepare for verbal abuse. In such circumstances, just do your job and report. Do not react to the abuse. Do not engage with the crowd. Remember, you are a professional even if others are not.
- If spitting or projectiles are thrown from the crowd are a possibility and you are determined to report, consider wearing a hooded, waterproof, discrete bump cap.
- If the atmosphere becomes hostile, avoid hanging around outside the venue or event and do not start questioning people.
- If the objective is to report from outside the venue, working with a colleague is sensible. Report from a secure location with clear exits and familiarize yourself with the route to your transportation. If an assault is a realistic prospect, consider the need for security and minimize your time on the ground.
- If the task was difficult or challenging, do not bottle up your emotions. Tell your superiors and colleagues. It is important that they are prepared and that everyone learns from each other.
Protests are common in Bangladesh. The police have used live ammunition, rubber bullets, pellet guns, tear gas, batons, and truncheons to quell protesters in the past. If violence is anticipated, the use of protective safety goggles or glasses, helmets, tear gas respirators, and protective body vests should be considered. For more information see CPJ’s personal protective equipment (PPE) guide.
- Know the area you are going to by researching the layout of the location in advance. Work out in advance what you would do in an emergency and identify all potential safe escape routes.
- Individuals should not be expected to work alone at protest locations. Try to work with a colleague and set up a regular check-in procedure with your base, family, or friends. Working after dark is riskier and should be avoided if possible. For more information, please see CPJ’s advice for journalists reporting alone.
- Take a medical kit if you know how to use it and ensure your mobile phone is fully charged.
- Avoid wearing loose clothing, political slogans, media branding, military patterns, politically affiliated colors, and flammable materials (e.g., nylon).
- Wear footwear with hard soles, laces, and some kind of ankle support.
- Tie long hair up to prevent individuals from pulling you from behind.
- Limit the number of valuables you take. Do not leave any equipment in vehicles, which are likely to be broken into. After dark, the risk of theft increases.
Awareness and positioning
- Consider your position and maintain situational awareness at all times. If feasible, find an elevated vantage point that might offer greater safety.
- Always plan an evacuation route as well as an emergency rendezvous point if you are working with others.
- Identify the closest point of medical assistance.
- If working in a crowd, plan a strategy. Keep to the outside of the crowd and avoid being sucked into the middle, where it is hard to escape.
- Continuously observe and read the mood and demeanor of the authorities in relation to the crowd dynamic. Police can become more aggressive if the crowd is agitated (or vice versa). Visual cues, such as the arrival of police dressed in riot gear or the throwing of projectiles, are potential indicators that aggression can be expected. Pull back to a safe location or plan a quick extraction when such “red flags” are evident.
- Photojournalists generally have to be in the thick of the action so are at more risk. Photographers in particular should have someone watching their back and should remember to look up from their viewfinder every few seconds. To avoid the risk of strangulation, do not wear the camera strap around your neck. Photojournalists often do not have the luxury of being able to work at a distance, so it is important to minimize the time spent in the crowd. Get your shots and get out.
- All journalists should be conscious of not outstaying their welcome in a crowd, which can turn hostile quickly.
If tear gas is likely to be used by the police
- The use of tear gas can result in sneezing, coughing, spitting, crying, and the production of mucus that obstructs breathing. In some cases, individuals may vomit, and breathing may become labored. Such symptoms could potentially increase media workers’ level of exposure to coronavirus infection via airborne virus droplets. Individuals who suffer from respiratory issues like asthma, who are listed in the COVID-19 vulnerable category, should therefore avoid covering crowd events and protests if tear gas is likely to be deployed.
Physical Safety: Assault
When dealing with aggression, consider the following:
- Assess the mood of protesters toward journalists before entering any crowd and remain vigilant for potential assailants.
- Read body language to identify an aggressor and use your own body language to pacify a situation.
- Keep eye contact with an aggressor, use open hand gestures, and keep talking with a calming manner.
- Stay at a distance of an extended arm’s length from the threat. If held, back away and break away firmly without aggression. If cornered and in danger, shout.
- If aggression increases, keep a hand free to protect your head and move with short deliberate steps to avoid falling. If in a team, stick together and link arms.
- While there are times when documenting aggression is crucial journalistic work, be aware of the situation and your own safety. Taking pictures of aggressive individuals can escalate a situation.
- If you are accosted, hand over what the assailant wants. Equipment is not worth your life.
Physical Safety: Reporting in a hostile community
Journalists are on occasion required to report in areas or communities that are hostile to the media or outsiders. This can happen if a community perceives that the media does not fairly represent them or portrays them in a negative light. During an election campaign, journalists may be required to work for extended periods among communities that are hostile to the media.
- If possible, research the community and their views in advance. Develop an understanding of what their reaction to the media might be and adopt a low profile if necessary.
- Secure access to the community in advance. Turning up without an invitation or someone vouching for you can cause problems. If you are not familiar with the area or are perceived as an outsider, consider hiring or obtaining the input of a local facilitator, community leader, or person of repute in the community who can accompany you and help coordinate your activities. Identify a local power broker who can help in case of emergency.
- If there is endemic abuse of alcohol or drugs in the community, be aware that the unpredictability factor increases.
- Ideally, work in a team or with backup. Depending on the risk levels, the backup can wait in a nearby safe location (e.g., shopping mall or petrol station) to respond if necessary.
- Think about the geography of the area and plan accordingly. Consider the need for security if the risk is high. Someone hired locally to protect you or your kit can be attuned to a developing threat while you are concentrating on work.
- Park your vehicle ready to go, ideally with the driver inside.
- If you have to work remotely from your transportation, know how to get back to it. Identify landmarks and share this information with colleagues.
- Know where to go in case of a medical emergency and work out an exit strategy.
- Always ask for consent before filming or photographing an individual, particularly if you do not have an easy exit.
- When you have the content you need, get out and do not linger longer than necessary. It is helpful to have a prearranged cut-off time and to depart at that time. If a team member is uncomfortable, do not waste time having a discussion. Just leave.
- Wear appropriate and respectful clothing, without media company branding. Remove media logos from equipment and vehicles if necessary.
- Take a medical kit if you know how to use it.
- Be respectful to the individuals and their beliefs and concerns at all times.
- Limit the amount of valuables and cash that you take. Consider whether thieves might be attracted by your equipment. If you are accosted, hand over what they want. Equipment is not worth your life.
- Avoid working at night, since the risk increases dramatically.
- Before broadcast or publication, consider that you may need to return to this location. Will your coverage affect your welcome if you return?
Journalists looking to learn more about digital, physical, and psychosocial safety can consult the following resources in Bengali.
This guide for journalists gives a comprehensive overview of the essentials of digital safety from securing accounts to secure communications.
These self-paced online courses, contextualized to the country, will allow journalists to study a topic and then complete online exercises. Topics include protecting sources, protecting against phishing, and how to strengthen mental well being during an emergency situation.