There is no doubt that the Digital Security Act is the main obstacle to press freedom. But there are many laws other than that which constrict the journalists or try to obstruct them. In his writing published on 20 May, the Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam referred to 12 laws or proposed laws. These are 1. The Penal Code, 1980 (Section 499-Defamation); 2. The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 (Sections 99, 108, 144); 3. The Official Secrets Act, 1923; 4. The Contempt of Court Act, 2013; 5. The Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration) Act, 1973; 6. The Press Council Act, 1974; 7. The Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) Act, 1974; 8. Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006; 9. The Digital Security Act, 2018; 10. The (Draft) Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT Platforms, 2001; 11. The (Draft) Over-the-Top (OTT) Content-Based Service Providing and Operation Policy, 2021 (by ICT Division); and 12. The (Draft) Mass Media Employees (Services Conditions) Act, 2022. Alongside these legal restrictions, there are the illegal obstacles too.
At the BNP meeting that day, BNP declared that if they form the government, they will abolish the Digital Security Act and all sorts of restrictive laws and ordinances. They will restructure the Bangladesh Press Council and increase its authority and scope. It will be ensured that any person or organisation affected by any content published in the media will not go to court without first settling the matter at the press council. In the keynote, BNP also said that, in order to render the media self-dependent, it would give consideration to equal distribution of advertisement as well as financial stimulus based on circulation and TRP.
We welcome BNP's declaration. At the same time we have a question. After the fall of the autocrat in 1990, BNP was in power two terms, 10 years in total. Even though the Digital Security Act was not there at the time, the Press Council and DFP were there. The Awami League government is now using these two institutions for its political ends. BNP would do the same when it was in power. Nazmul Huda was a powerful information minister in Khaleda Zia's first government. He later switched camps, but we haven't forgotten his actions back then. He gave Bhorer Kagoj a daily 20 -inch advertisement as punishment. His speeches at public meetings wouldn't be covered by the newspapers. The release sent by his officer every night would be published ad verbatim. It was when he was information minister that the police entered the Press Club and beat up the journalists. It is also alleged that he played a role in dividing the journalists' union.
There was a huge difference between Khaleda Zia's first government and the second one. The first government was much more tolerant. Even then, though, the distribution of advertisements was not fair. All governments look towards journalism and journalists of their own choice, rather than independent journalism. That is why when Awami League and BNP are in the opposition they are friends of the media. But they do a volte-face the moment they come to power.
At the meeting that day, BNP highlighted the oppression of journalists during the Awami League reign, it spoke about newspapers and TV channels being shut down. All of this was true. It is also true that many journalists lost their jobs because of this closure of private TV channels and newspapers. Many journalists went to jail because of sedition charges filed by the present government against them. During the rule of this government, over 70 cases were filed against the Daily Star editor. When a student died in an accident at an event of Kishor Alo, a murder case was filed against the Prothom Alo editor. Last year when Prothom Alo's correspondent Rozina Islam went to the health ministry to gather information, she was detained there for six hours. Later charges were filed against her under the century-old Official Secrets Act and she was sent to jail. It is not just Prothom Alo journalists, but journalists from many newspapers who face all sorts of charges and are sent to jail. Cartoonist Kishore and journalist Shafiqul Islam were also inhumanly tortured. Writer Mushtaq Ahmad died in jail. These incidents are a manifestation of the Awami League government's adverse and hateful treatment of journalists and writers. We certainly condemn such anti-democratic and anti-media behaviour.
When in opposition, everyone is the media's friend. But they forget all that once in power. When in power, they no longer need to exchange views with journalists. They only need to gain their allegiance
At the same time we must also say, it is not that journalists carried out their duties unhindered during the BNP rule or that they didn't face attacks and cases. During the rule of the BNP government, Ekushey TV was closed down. BSS journalist Enamul Huq Chowdhury was arrested, placed on remand and tortured for incorrect information being quoted in news sent to a foreign media. Journalist Saleem Samad and Priscilla Raj were also tortured for assisting two foreign journalists. Friend of the liberation war Simon Dring's visa wasn't renewed and he was forced to leave the country.
At the meeting held to exchange views, only the party secretary general spoke on behalf of BNP. We can take his declaration and commitment as BNP's commitment. The question is whether they will keep these declarations and pledges in mind if they go to power.
Over the past 51 years since independence, Awami League, BNP and Jatiya Party have taken turns in ruling the country. Jatiya Party was an autocratic party and so nothing can be expected of them. But after the fall of autocracy, the behaviour of the 'democratic' parties towards journalists was nothing great. That day many journalist friends at the meeting were not too pleased with my frank deliberations. They say it is not difficult to discern between the two rules. Even though journalists were also suppressed during the BNP rule, it was not that devastating as during the Awami League rule. The words of some journalist friends reflected party allegiance more than aspirations for press freedom. The problem is not in the degree of mistreatment, it is in the mindset, the treatment, the power. When in opposition, everyone is the media's friend. But they forget all that once in power. When in power, they no longer need to exchange views with journalists. They only need to gain their allegiance.
* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]
* This column appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir