Killings, digital security act and the risk of corona

On the night of 11 October, journalist Ilias Hossain of the Narayanganj daily Dainik Bijoy, was hacked to death. The local people managed to catch one of the killers on the spot and handed him over to the police. The police arrested others too. It is widely speculated that he was killed for his reporting on illegal gas connections and the drug trade. The recent explosions in a Narayanganj mosque, leaving 34 dead, is perhaps enough evidence of the dire dangers caused by such illegal gas connections.

Ilias Hossain’s death is a reminder once again of the risks that a journalist faces. It also brings two other issues to the fore. One, journalists are not just victims of the government and powerful politicians’ ire, but are also seen by other criminals as the enemy too. Two, the small-town (mofussil) journalists are no less in danger. As some of the suspects were arrested, it will be possible to speedily bring Ilias Hossain's killers to trial. But given the track record of the oppression and killing of journalists in Bangladesh, it is difficult to be hopeful.

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Even in the prevailing pandemic, journalists all over the country have proven their mettle and commitment in performing their duties. And they face all sorts of risks in doing so. It is because of them we could see the pictures of the sufferings and anguish faced all over the country by women, children, the elderly, and the ailing people trying to receive medical treatment when the pandemic first broke out. It was the journalists who revealed the immense sufferings of the people waiting to be tested for coronavirus in the limited number of centres set up by the government. They revealed how the readymade garment industry workers had to walk for miles and miles simply because of the whims of the factory owners.

The bold reporting of the newspersons revealed the corruption of the ruling party leaders and activists in filching relief materials. An innumerable number of journalists were beaten up for reporting and taking photographs of relief goods being misappropriated. There is no official account of their number, not even with the journalist unions.

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Then there is the blatant misuse of the digital security act. The lackeys and associates of those accused of pilfering relief goods, used this law to file one case after the other against the journalists. Because the accused were of the ruling party ilk, the police wasted no time in accepting the cases against the newsmen and taking the 'offenders' on remand. Those accused of stealing relief have been released on bail, while the journalists facing charges under the digital security act have not been granted bail and languish behind bars.

Quite a few journalists died of coronavirus too, 32 in all. Of them, 21 had tested positive for coronavirus and 11 had symptoms. And over 1000 journalists were infected with the virus.

According to records of the global organisation Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on 23 July, at least 22 journalists in Bangladesh faced cases and attacks in the first 70 days of the coronavirus outbreak of the country, from 10 March to 21 May. They include Manab Zamin editor Matiur Rahman Chowdhury and BDNews 24 chief editor Toufiq Imrose Khalidi. Most of the others work outside of Dhaka.

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There is no reliable report on how many have been arrested and are in jail, how many are out on bail. The arbitrary application of the digital security act continues unabated. One of the recent instances was of a journalist indicted simply for the misplacement of a comma. Understanding his mistake, he removed his Facebook status within half an out, but could not evade arrest.

Dhaka-based NGO, MRDI (Management and Research Development Initiative) last month held a virtual discussion with media workers outside of Dhaka. The discussion on the experience of journalists during coronavirus focused on the extent of the risks they faced as well as institutional, family and social support.

The organisers informed me about the pressure these correspondents faced from the newsroom and the lack of institutional support when it came to their security. Other than the journalists of a handful of newspapers and media houses, they were not given personal protective equipment (PPE) or any special risk allowance. Even if they contracted coronavirus, they were taken care of by their families and the community. Quite a few journalists died of coronavirus too, 32 in all. Of them, 21 had tested positive for coronavirus and 11 had symptoms. And over 1000 journalists were infected with the virus.

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With the extensive spread of the social media, the newspaper industry is facing an unprecedented crisis. There is also immediate response to news. And details, backgrounds and analysis appearing in the newspapers are being shared with unknown social media friends. They get to read with the news without buying the newspaper. The newspapers are struggling to tackle this challenge. On the one hand, the revenue of newspapers is falling and on the other hand the risks, responsibilities and expenses of accurate reporting are escalating.

Again, when it comes to credibility of the news on the social media, the newspapers remain in the lead. The importance of professionalism when it comes to the accuracy, importance and relevance of the news, comes even more to the limelight during crises and disasters.

Many of the journalists outside of Dhaka work part time, some even work with no wages, simply out of passion for the profession. There are, of course, allegations of irregularities and dishonesty against a couple of them. But then again, such allegations can be levelled against persons in any profession, particularly when it comes to political opportunism.

In the reality of the absence of an effective opposition, the government will become detached from the public if it does not give the media the right to speak the truth and to criticise
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Again, as in other professions, the majority of those in journalism are unquestionably dedicated and committed to the profession. But the risks they face, both physical and otherwise, are on a steady rise. Journalists are the target of attack from politicians, the administration and unscrupulous quarters. Sometimes they join hands to teach journalists a lesson.

Photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajal was possibly the victim of such wrath. In an open letter to the prime minister on 1 October, CPJ requested that measures be taken to ensure that the public prosecution does not continue in its repeated refusal to grant him bail.

In a notice on 13 October, the home ministry said that in recent times it had been noticed that false, fabricated, misleading and provocative reports were being posted in the social media from home and abroad concerning the government, people's representatives, military officers, police officers and members of the law enforcement. It said that false and baseless news was being spread to disconcert the security forces.

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There is, of course, the well-founded apprehension that false and baseless news can disrupt the peace and create concern, hatred and confusion in the public mind. But the home ministry failed to specify which news was false or fabricated. Was it the leaked telephone conversation of Mujibur Rahman alias Nixon or was it the news about police in Sylhet beating the young Raihan to death for failing to pay them money? These incidents first appeared in the social media and later the newspapers, after verifying the reports, picked up the stories. The member of parliament gave his version, but did not deny the phone call. The police too had to move away from their narrative of the young Raihan being beaten to death by a mob.

These incidents prove the indispensability of an independent press. The government, rather than playing hide and seek, should clarify which information is false and which is true. Action must be taken, as committed, to review the undemocratic and oppressive clauses in the law with which journalists are being harassed en masse, that is, the digital security act. And fair, transparent and speedy trials must be held regarding the attacks on journalists. In the reality of the absence of an effective opposition, the government will become detached from the public if it does not give the media the right to speak the truth and to criticise.

*Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist and columnist. This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir