Visa restrictions are serious, what about repression of journalists?

US Visa Illustration

Two newspaper headings appeared on the same day, "217 journalists victim of torture and harassment in 9 months: Ain O Salish Kendra" and "Peter Haas’ statement is pressure on media, journalists tell rally".

Both the reports were about journalism and media freedom. But one of the reports was about the journalists who have been victims of assault and physical injury or have been harassed by arrests and lawsuits. The other was about apprehensions concerning possible losses that certain journalists may face if not granted a visa to visit the US in the future. A human rights organisation carries out the task of research and dissemination of incidents on the repression, torture and harassment of journalists. And now there is a relatively new platform, Justice for Journalists, that is protesting against the US visa restrictions.

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One of the regular tasks of human rights organisations is to collect information on all sorts of repression, torture, harassment and such violation of rights, with particular focus on one of the riskiest professions, journalism. Their records reveal that in the 9 months of January to September this year, 1 journalist has been killed and 216 have been subject to repression and harassment. Golam Rabbani, a journalist of Jamalpur, only very recently was killed in an attack by ruling party men. Attacks on journalists have become quite normalised nowadays and taken for granted. How much more can the journalist leaders protest and demonstrate about this? This recent platform has found something new to gripe about in the US visa policy.

In speaking about the process of imposing US visa restrictions on those impeding a free and fair election in Bangladesh, the US ambassador in Dhaka Peter Haas said that the media may also come under the visa policy. Leaders of a faction of the politically divided journalists union reacted to his statement, saying it amounted to pressure and unwarranted interference on independent journalism.

Journalists of the government camp took part in ‘protest against US pressure on the media in the name of visa policy’, under the name of Justice for Journalists. They claimed that Ambassador Haas’ statement was a violation of the first amendment of the US constitution. Without delving into the relevance of the US law here, what we need to know is if this is the freedom of speech we wanted.

Any protest against curtailing the independence of journalists is fair and anyone believing in democracy would have supported it. The question is, will the US visa policy actually harm the rights of the media? They policy states, under this policy, “the United States will be able to restrict the issuance of visas for any Bangladeshi individual, believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining the democratic election process in Bangladesh.” If the media and journalists carry out their task of publishing objective news and views in a professional manner, surely that is not expected to undermine or impede the election process? So that means there really is no pressure on the media other than maintaining professional integrity. If the media carries out its duty in observing whether any mass violation of voting rights as in 2014 and 2018 takes place or not, I see no reason for any risk of facing any form of restrictions.

The unfortunate fact remains that many among those who are terming the US visa policy as an unwarranted and unjust pressure on the media, in the recent past has been demanding action against the independent media which was not of their liking. They did not even hesitate to demand action against the editor and journalist of a top-most popular newspaper in the country for publishing criticism against the government. In another incident, they demanded the resignation of another editor. The government, in various manners, has imposed an undeclared prohibition on providing ads to these newspapers. The journalists of certain media houses are barred for joining certain government events. Had they then been vocal against unjust interference in media freedom, then perhaps the country’s democracy wouldn’t have been harmed this far.

There are two major reasons that the US visa policy has generated such huge debate and discussion and that is because it applies not only to future roles, but also takes into consideration past action. According to their announcement, this includes current and former Bangladeshi officials, members of pro-government and opposition political parties, and members of law enforcement, the judiciary, and security services. The question can quite naturally arise as to whether those who are terming the US visa policy as contradictory to press freedom, are actually using this misinterpretation to save their own skins from the visa restrictions, to protect the future of their offspring.

As in the case of many other countries, the US issues a separate visa for journalists, known as ‘J visa’. If one is going on professional journalistic duty to the US, details of the kind of work and the topic must be stated. No journalistic work can be done there with any visa other than the J visa. In fact, there are instances of individuals being sent back in such cases. (In Bangladesh too, the conditions of granting visas to journalists are different from other visas). So will this special visa system for journalists also be deemed as contradictory to media freedom?

Undoubtedly, the US visa restriction policy that has been announced is unfortunate and shameful for the country. However, at the outset, both the ruling party and opposition welcomed this visa restriction. But probably as realization dawned on what the impacts of the policy would actually be, reality has hit the ruling party. It is because of the violation of voting rights in the last two consecutive elections and the various means used to suppress the opposition and dissenting voices, the control exerted on rallies and gatherings, that the issue of voting rights and the restoration of democracy has become so important.

The government is entirely responsible for this humiliation. Those who really support independence of the media should demand that the government resolve the political crisis by creating an environment conducive to free and fair elections and the restoration of democracy. It is totally illogical to expect others to remain silent in the absence of democracy.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir


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