This year’s slogan for World Press Freedom Day is ‘Journalism without fear of favour’.
However, those of us involved in journalism in Bangladesh, cannot say with conviction that we are able to practice journalism fearlessly. We are hounded by fear, both within the law and extrajudicially too.
Media experts say that the governments of many countries are becoming more authoritarian during the coronavirus pandemic. New laws, regulations and orders are being enforced - you can write this, you can’t write that and so on. It is as if the government is to determine what’s true and what’s not. There is no scope for the journalists or the general people to use their own powers of discretion.
The repressive Digital Security Act enforced in 2018 is being used to suppress both the common citizens as well as journalists. Yet when the law was being enacted, the government’s policymakers had declared that it would not be used to harass or suppress journalists. They said it was to prevent defamation and the spread of hatred on the social media.
A survey shows that after the Digital Security Act was imposed in 2018, cases were filed against 180 journalists. Other than journalists, the arrested persons include writers, cartoonists and human rights activists. And 114 were arrested immediately after the cases were filed. Among the arrested is the editor of Pakhyokal, Shafiqul Islam alias Kajol.
A ruling party member of parliament filed the case against Shafiqul Islam. After the case, Shafiqul went missing from in front of his house in Hatirpool of the capital city. He was found a month later near the border at Benapole. The Benapole police charged him with crossing over to India with no valid documents.
If he had indeed fled to India, then he surely would have been caught by the border security forces or the police. Where even a fly can’t escape the attention of India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and trespassers are shot dead, how did Shafiqul cross the border? There is no answer. Shafiqul is in jail. It has been two months and his bail petition still hasn’t been granted. He is the editor of a newspaper and a professional photographer.
The Digital Security Act has been used against many journalists for reporting on the theft and misappropriation of relief materials during the coronavirus pandemic. Some have gone into hiding and some, like Shafiqul, are behind bars.
A 15-year-oldschoolboy was arrested and is now in the juvenile correctional centre for protesting on Facebook against the increase of telephone call charges during coronavirus. The boy had admitted his mistake but that made no difference.
A teacher of Rokeya University in Rangpur and another teacher of Rajshahi University were arrested under the same law. They were accused of making offensive comments about the recently deceased former health minister on Facebook. The government sent them to jail under the Digital Security Act. And the university authorities simply dismissed them without giving them a chance to defend themselves. What else could be expected for partisan vice chancellors?
The daughter-in-law of the former health minister, herself a teacher at Dhaka University, issued a statement in the newspapers, for those who had made the offensive comments, to be pardoned. But the ‘beauty’ of the Digital Security Act is that if a case is filed, that means jail. The accused must first go to jail and then it will be decided whether he or she is innocent of guilty. If it takes five years for a case to be settled, the accused persons will remain five years in prison.
We may be ahead of Pakistan in many respects, but lag behind in press freedom. This is unfortunate, shameful.
Previously under the ICT Act, the internationally renowned photographer Shahidul Alam was arrested on 5 August 2018 and he had to spend three and a half months in jail. He recently received the International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). So the government of the people’s republic of Bangladesh can at least claim credit for this award!
The ministers cry themselves hoarse that the media has absolute freedom in this country. Information minister Hasan Mahmud praised the role of journalists and said that because the mainstream media and private television channels are giving genuine news about coronavirus, the people do not believe the fake news on social media. But when the newspapers and television channels point out the government’s mistakes, then the policymakers sing a different tune. They get a whiff of conspiracy.
When a journalist posed a question about conflicting statements made by the health minister Zahid Maleque and IDECR, from the next day the provision for questions was withheld at the health directorate’s regular press briefing. The authorities of various institutions and hospitals under the health ministry issued notices prohibiting interaction with journalists. There are similar unwritten instructions for all government establishments.
Meanwhile, the government has the opportunity to declare, we are the ones who are catching out corruption and misdeeds. Yes, the people will get to know only as much as they are doing. The rest will remain behind the scenes. So what is the point of journalism?
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Bangladesh in 2020 took another step back in press freedom. In their report on the occasion of Press Freedom Day on 3 May, RSF said Bangladesh ranked 151 among 180 countries, the lowest among the eight countries of South Asia.
Even Pakistan and Afghanistan rank better than us at 145 and 122 respectively. India, Sri Lanka and Nepal rank at 142, 127 and 112 respectively.
Bhutan ranks the best in South Asia, at 67. Next s Maldives at 79. We may be ahead of Pakistan in many respects, but lag behind in press freedom. This is unfortunate, shameful.
People do not look to the media for what is obvious and what occurs before their eyes. They want information on what is being concealed by the authorities (authorities does not necessarily mean the government always, there institutions outside of the government). Given Bangladesh’s socio-economic and political realities, it is difficult to dig out such information from behind the scenes. And the Digital Security Act has made it all the more difficult.
Fearless and unbiased journalism is not possible in a country where such a repressive law exists. Fear is a constant companion for journalists. They are often forced to publish and air the government’s one-sided views. They cannot publish the counter views. There are innumerable instances of this at present and in the recent past.
Then again, the government often does not respond to requests for information on specific matters. According to the rules of journalism, it is essential to get their statement too. So this also prevents journalists from presenting certain news. This is undoubtedly a shortcoming.
Meanwhile, the government has the opportunity to declare, we are the ones who are catching out corruption and misdeeds. Yes, the people will get to know only as much as they are doing. The rest will remain behind the scenes.
So what is the point of journalism?
Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.orgThis article appeared in Prothom Alo print and online editions and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.