Recently, the officials of the health ministry confined Prothom Alo’s senior reporter Rozina Islam to their office for about six hours after she went to the ministry to carry out her professional duty. Later on, she was sent to jail in a case filed under the century-old Official Secrets Act. Filing a case against a journalist under this act and harassing her at the secretariat was an unprecedented incident. The editor of News Today and former president of the National Press Club, Reazuddin Ahmed talked to Prothom Alo’s Riadul Karim about this and other issues.
Journalists were concerned over the section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act. Though the ICT Act was repealed in the face of strong protest from the journalists, but then came the harsher Digital Security Act. We have seen various misuses of this act. Now we see a case has been filed against a journalist under the Official Secrets Act. How do you explain it?
The torture and pressure on Prothom Alo’s senior reporter Rozina Islam and the case filed against her have brought journalism to a new challenge, though journalists have been carrying out professional duty facing such pressure all along. The profession of journalism is not a bed of roses. It’s a bed of thorns. The Press and Publication Ordinance of Ayub Khan, Special Power Act and today’s Digital Security Act – all these acts have similarly been formulated against the independent journalism. All these have been done to stop independent journalism. Various draconian laws have gaged journalism and journalists have waged movement against the black laws. Draconian laws won’t leave as long as journalism profession exists.
But what happened this time is rare in a civilised and democratic country. Maybe, it is the first time the Official Secrets Act was used in Bangladesh and it was against a journalist. Recently, this act was used against two Reuters journalists in Myanmar and both journalists get seven years imprisonment. The act was enacted in British India to carry out corruption by concealing truth and suppressing the independence movement.
An allegation of theft has been brought against Rozina Islam under the section 3 of the act formulated in 1923. She has stolen the information! Which is the courageous journalism if unearthing the truth is information theft? Theft or spying is condemnable and it disgraces the journalism profession.
We witnessed that Rozina Islam was harassed mentally and physically after being confined to a place like the secretariat. Have you ever seen such incident at the centre of the administration before? Many journalist leaders have said it’s an attempt to gag the investigative journalism.
Those journalist leaders spoke true. What has happened is a rear incident. As a media worker, I have been doing as much as I can for independent journalism since 1972, but I never saw the use of this act anywhere. We protested when the Official Secrets Act is incorporated in the section 32 (offence and punishment for breaching secrecy of the government) of the Digital Security Act. At that time, we met the law minister and protested against it. The law minister said the Right To Information (RTI) Act is in force and the Official Secrets Act is against the RTI Act so the Official Secrets Act won’t be in effect. Yet we saw the blatant use of this act. Not only that, a group of bureaucrats tortured Rozina Islam physically and mentally taking shelter under the law. They pressured Rozina Islam to tell a lie. And the good news is journalists of the country registered a strong protest against it.
Nowadays, what are the barriers to independent journalism?
Firstly, the big challenge to journalism is the lack of free and democratic atmosphere. There is a term self-censorship in our country. No one in our country dares speak true or can do so. And it’s the biggest barrier. Secondly, the editorial structure of our journalism has been destroyed. People who are not journalists have taken over it. A person owns money can be an editor. No experience is necessary. If inexperienced, non-journalist and business persons become editor, independent journalism can’t be carried out under their leadership. Thirdly, some of various draconian laws have come to the fore on top of the political pressure. Influence of pressure groups is bigger than legal barrier. Various quarters including political, black market and business pressure groups sometimes impede independent journalism with money and muscle power. Many journalists lost their lives in different times. Many draconian laws had been put on hold after the mass movement in the 1990s. These laws have now returned in many ways. The provisions of Ayub Khan’s Press and Publication Ordinance aimed at suppressing journalists and stopping newspapers are incorporated in the Special Power Act later. Now these issues have been added to the Digital Security Act. These are the extreme challenges to independent journalism.
You have been involved in journalism since independence. Since then, how much freedom has the media exercised to date?
We had been able to practice independent journalism after gaining our independence. It was a rear example in the history of world as to how much freedom journalists had enjoyed in Bangladesh from 1 to 25 March of 1971. We have enjoyed independent journalism through movement with the involvement of the people. Journalists have faced obstacles in various times. Efforts have been made to hinder journalism in various times in different ways including 14 years of imprisonment, military rule and autocratic attitude. And we have carried out journalism resisting it together. The road to journalism had never been smooth. Journalists have continued independent journalism by gaining their rights through movement. We have done independent journalism and will continue to do so.
How will you evaluate the prevailing situation?
The incident of Rozina Islam has unveiled there is no atmosphere for independent journalism in Bangladesh now. Needless to say, the door to independent journalism is closed in Bangladesh.
Several officials of the health ministry allegedly harassed Rozina Islam and the officials of that ministry, too, are investigating the incident.
If those who face the allegation become the judges, then justice will never prevail. It’s a universal truth. The health ministry’s probe committee can never be independent and fair. They will try to protect their people and the issue will be concealed.
You mentioned political pressure. We always see political parties out of state power or being in the opposition become vocal about the freedom of press. But when that certain parties go to power show quite an opposite character. Why does it happen?
It happens because those who stay in power think they live in glass house. They get frightened always thinking that everyone is watching them. The incident of Rozina Islam revealed that the bureaucrats want to conceal truth, corruption and crimes. Independent journalism is necessary to unearth these. Movement should be waged against Digital Security Act and Official Secrets Act right now. Freeing Rozina Islam was our immediate responsibility, but the long-term roadmap will be to wage movement for the repeal of these draconian laws. Waging movement will open the road to independent journalism.
* This interview appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Hasanul Banna