Black laws muffle the media

Much has been said and written about the various black laws enforced upon the media, particularly the imposition and implementation of Article 57. However, the government does not seem bothered at all. It is rather surprising when we see in the book, Karagarer Rojnamcha (Prison Diary), the writer Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was extremely upset and harshly critical of the restrictions placed upon the newspapers during those times.

Back in 1966 Sheikh Mujib has written, “The newspaper Ittefaq didn’t arrive. Instead, they gave me Dainik Pakistan. When I asked why, they said the paper had been shut down. The government had closed it down.

“The government had confiscated the New Nation Press under the Pakistan protection law. Ittefaq, the English weekly Dhaka Times and the cinema weekly Purbani were printed at this press. The police has locked the press up. Ittefaq has been closed down. The day before that, the owner of Ittefaq and the New Nation press had been arrested under the country protection law and placed in cell no. 10 of Dhaka Central Jail.”

In Karagarer Rojnamcha, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had written about the confiscation of Manik Miah’s press, “It is difficult to say what the consequences will be if they continue to the rule this country with such a crude law. They do not seem to be least perturbed about the horrific act of confiscating someone’s personal property without showing any cause, incarcerating one of the best editors and owners of a newspaper with no criminal charges and with no trial.”

“Manik Miah is not in politics, but he had his convictions. How wrong and unethical is it to imprison him under the state protection act?”

Unfortunately, the media of independent Bangladesh has been enmeshed in various restrictions and regulations, in various black laws. And the various governments are simply imposing harsher restrictions. It was the East India Company rulers who had first imposed black laws on the media in India or in Bengal. Within 30 years into The East India Company’s rule, voices were quelled. The English rulers came up with a new law to silence the voices of the liberal Englishmen. The liberal Englishmen would speak out against the oppression of the company’s rule in their English newspapers. There were at least 15 newspapers edited by the English in Bangladesh at the time. Many of the editors were Whigs. When the East India Company’s judicial system and the new laws snatched away people’s right to speak the truth, the editor of Bengal Gazette James Augustus Hickey in 1782 stood up for freedom of thought. The company government filed charges against Hickey and indicted him for the crime of publishing independent views in his newspaper.

In 1793 another English editor, Sir John Shore, was evicted from India. The local people didn’t have any newspaper of their own till then. In 1798 Lord Wellesley arrived as governor general. That year the Asiatic Mirror commented that Europeans were so few in number in the country, that the Indians could easily stone them to death. Lord Wellesley saw this as a provocation for an armed uprising of Indians against the Europeans. He declared the press regulation act in 1799. The objective of this regulation obviously was to muffle the voice of the editors of the liberal English newspapers.

Yet another law was promulgated in 1888 to silence dissenting voices. Under this law, any persons – whether European or Indian – could be imprisoned with no prior notice or chance to defend themselves if they committed the ‘crime’ of criticising or opposing government policy. Another press ordinance act was imposed in 1823, to the effect that no news or commentary could be published in any periodical regarding government policy without government permission. This law was clearly enacted to curtail press freedom. What was seen justified in Europe or England as democratic criticism by individuals or newspapers, in India was taken to be illegal, unlawful.

Under Rammohan’s leadership, a memorandum was submitted to the Supreme Court against this act, or against the curbing of people’s fundamental rights. Along with Rammohan, the five others who also signed the memorandum were Dwarkanath Tagore, Chandrakumar Tagore, Prasannakumar Tagore, Harchandra Ghoshe and Gouricharan Bandhyapadhaya. It was stated that the people had the freedom to criticise and voice their views about governance issues. When the 1823 ordinance clamped down on freedom of speech, Rammohan stopped publishing his Meerat-ul-Akhbar in protest.

On 20 September 1939 when World War II began, the Indian protection act was promulgated and control was clamped down on the media. The Indian Journalist Association protested strongly against this control. It expressed concern that the government press officials not only interfered in the news, but also issued notices to caution the newspapers about their views. Five newspapers in Mumbai were banned. The Indian Journalist Association protested against the press censorship and opposed the Indian protection act.

On 19 April 1940 Gandhi took up the non-violence movement and the home office ordered that the Congress booklet on this ‘satyagraha’ movement be confiscated. Bulletin on Congress’ Ramgarh conference was also confiscated. The government’s regional press advisor issued a letter to the editor of the National Herald, saying that no news could be published about Gandhi’ representative Vinoba Bhave without the permission of Delhi’s principal press advisor. In protest, The National Herald took the decision to every day publish the government directive in its editorial column and not to publish any news sent by the censor board pertaining to the war. That is how the paper dealt with government control.

The government arrested the editor of Sainik for publishing Vinoba Bhave’s statements and their press was shut down. It was the objectionable heading of the report that led to the editor’s arrest.

On 14 April 1941 the governor of the United Province called for a general meeting in Deradun to discuss the newspaper Sainik and other matters. The governor at the meeting said, “The National Herald and Hindustan Times are quite bad.” Hindustan Times criticised the government profusely. The United Province press advisor said that most of the Hindi newspapers in the province backed the Congress and instigated anti-British activities. The newspapers had been repeatedly warned not to publish views that went against the government.

From 1941 the Indian government became even sterner with the press. During the ‘Quit India’ movement, strong control was placed in newspapers. In 1942 the editors were warned against publishing anything at all about the movement or the war, or else stern action would be taken against the newspapers. Just before the ‘Quit India’ movement, the British government completely gagged the press. The newspapers were being accused on any grounds and on any excuse. National Herald was shut down for some time. Many newspapers were asked to submit their editorial pieces to the government censors. In protest, many newspapers left the editorial space conspicuously blank.

No adverse remark could be made without the censor board approval. It is easy to comprehend the extent to which the newspapers could freely express their opinions. Standing up against this repression, Nehru said that this long shadow cast by the government’s censorship had darkened the pages of the newspapers. It had placed handcuffs on their hands and shackles around their feet. It is unfortunate that such black laws still exist in independent India too. And all rulers of Pakistan and Bangladesh follow the same path.

Source: Prothom Alo

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