Bank account details summoned to scare journalists

In the backdrop of the failure of political powers to prevent the steady erosion of democracy, when it has become near impossible for free media to survive, the lack of unity among journalists is all the more dismaying.

The government gains from the divisions within the journalist unions, in line with political divides. With the dominance of pro-government elements in getting permission for television channels, newspapers and online news portals on one hand and the politicisation of the journalist unions on the other, the growth of independent and free media has been significantly stymied.

Under such circumstances, the summons for back account details of journalist leaders came as a surprise to many. The unions are viewing this unusual step as 'creating pressure on independent journalism.' It is evident that the government is not at ease. This step is a reflection of the government's unease and discomfort. The question is, why is the government ill at ease and what could be the reason behind this pressure placed on the journalist leaders?

It must be said at first that while the unions have expressed their anger, the journalist leaders have strongly said that the bank account details should be made public so that there can be no mystery over the matter. They deserve praise for this stance and openness. After all, when similar summons are made, or any such notice issued by the Anti-Corruption Commission, in the case of politicians and businessmen there is a flurry of efforts to stay such orders or they resort to the court. That is their right and it is not my intention here to criticise them. We are just praising the apparent ethical stand of the journalist leaders. If any of them are lobbying behind the scenes against the move, then they too deserve equal criticism.

Another matter should be acknowledged here and that is, journalists are a part of this society. They are neither residents of any isolated island nor are they angels. One cannot deny that there are allegations against certain journalists of amassing wealth through unscrupulous and dishonest means. There are instances of some of them affiliating themselves with party politics and acquire approval for TV channel licences, newspapers, online news portals and IPTV, becoming the owners of media houses overnight.

One of the most significant indicators of the serious erosion of democracy in the country is the visible shrinking of freedom of expression

Many viewers are turning away from TV, sick of the blind partisan loyalty of these people in their deliberations and rhetoric on the talk shows. News media has fallen into a crisis of confidence. If the government agency Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU) sought details of the bank accounts of such persons, this could be lauded. But they did not do so. Instead, they are out to seek errors and shortcomings of the elected leaders of journalist unions and professional organisations.

It would be fine if this move was based on any specific information. But similar steps all at the same time against the presidents and general secretaries of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists, Dhaka Union of Journalists, Jatiya Press Club and Dhaka Reporters Unity, prove that the government does not have any specific information. It would be ridiculous to think that they were all in cahoots to share ill-gotten gains, because there is no sign of their political differences being patched up among themselves.

Over the past few days, politicians within the ruling party itself have been steadily losing their power, creating a strange sense of unrest. With the government's talk about zero tolerance towards corruption and crime, now going out of control, suppressed anger and criticism is gradually emerging. And so instead, zero tolerance against criticism of the government is now rearing its head. For some time now the ministers and ruling party leaders have been terming any criticism on social media as smear campaigns and have declared war against such criticism.

Even the head of police has given his force clear orders, to make sure that "no one carries out propaganda against the country or government in social media." There may be debate about the interpretation of his words concerning propaganda against the country, and he can order this to be stopped. But can he give such orders against anti-government criticism? So will the opposition parties be dissolved and merge with the ruling party? Or will they give up politics? Is there scope to consider this statement of the police chief as isolated?

One of the most significant indicators of the serious erosion of democracy in the country is the visible shrinking of freedom of expression. The steps taken to this end include controlling media licences, undeclared censorship of the media, arrests, abductions, oppression, killings and oppressive criminal laws, the most misused of which is the Digital Security Act.

According to Prothom Alo reports, in just the two years since the law was enacted in 2018, over 2,000 cases have been filed under it. In other words, three cases a day have been filed on average under this act. Records of human rights organisations in May indicate that cases have been filed under the Digital Security Act against at least 80 journalists since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. And at least two journalists have been killed in carrying out their professional duties, 70 injured, at least 30 harassed and at least 5 victims of enforced disappearance for some time.

The global organisation, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), along with the Washington Post jointly published a full page advertisement in the Washington Post in April, concerning Bangladesh and the right to freedom of expression. Half the page carried the words, 'Criticism, commentary and cartoons are not a crime', with a picture of cartoonist Kishore. The other half called for the authorities to drop charges filed against Kishore under the Digital Security Act and to repeal the law. The advertisement also was a reminder that journalism was not a crime.

The only silver lining to this unwarranted pressure against the journalist leaders is that the divided leaders on either side of the political spectrum share the same stand

The case against Kishore has not been dropped. Last week the police submitted their investigation report against him to the court and the trial process has begun. After two months of enforced disappearance, photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajol spent a few months in jail. The investigation report against him too has been submitted to the court. The case of journalist Prabir Sikder just last week is proof that such cases aim at suppression and harassment. The six years of suffering --being arrested by police, taken on remand, facing investigation and being brought up for hearings, finally came to an end.

The various news media emerging along with technological advancements have also put journalists and news media in face of unprecedented adversity and challenges. In face of fake news and rumours, mainstream news media has won people's trust. This step against the journalist leaders is part of this trend to steadily increase pressure on news media. Both factions of the journalists union have justifiably raised the question as to whether such sweeping measures against only journalist leaders in exclusion of other professions, are a threat to journalism and an attempt to demean the journalist community. We have seen the same strategy used against journalist Rozina Islam, who faced the ire of bureaucrats for reporting on the corruption and irregularities in the health sector during corona times.

The government needs to change its attitude towards criticism and differing views. But there are no indications to hope this will happen. The only silver lining to this unwarranted pressure against the journalist leaders is that the divided leaders on either side of the political spectrum share the same stand. Journalists now need to stand united against any attempt to scare free and independent journalism, no matter if it is by the government or any other force. Hopefully they will now pay more attention to unity among themselves and actively work together to protect independence of the media.

* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist.

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