More media doesn’t mean a freer media
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has selected media and democracy as its theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day. More specifically, its theme is ‘Media for democracy: Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation’. Perhaps it would have served us well if this theme had been highlighted before our votes were cast on the night before the election. We then may not have had to bear the ignominy of the media’s failure in covering the elections. The foreign media and social media would not have got the upper hand.
According to the Bangladesh experience, the government’s strategy in policy formulation is to listen but not to act. For example, when it came to the digital security act, the ministers held dialogues with journalists, editors and other stakeholders. They assured them that there would be nothing repressive in the act, nothing that would curtail press freedom. But when it came to actual formulation, they did a U-turn. The editors took to the street in protests, but to no avail.
The digital security act is not the only bottleneck to the path of free media. It is just the latest addition to many existing laws that restrict and curb rights. It is an updated version of the controversial Section 57 of the previous Information Communication Technology (ICT) Act. The journalists’ associations are too closely affiliated with political parties. These organisations are least concerned about how many journalists were harassed under the digital security act or under Section 57 of the ICT Act. And the law is being applied in no uncertain terms. It was used against world renowned photographer Shahidul Alam, creating a stir. Election officers in Khulna also used this act to harass several journalists in Khulna during the election.
Facing defamation cases, editors and journalists have been demanding abolition of the criminal clause in the act. The cases filed for ‘defamation’ or ‘hurting feelings’ under the act have become favourite tools to use against the country’s top editors. Instead of taking the journalists’ demands into consideration, a defamation clause was added to the digital security act. And so journalists, working in media outlets owned by political rivals, are thrown into jail on defamation charges.
Another method of infringing upon press freedom is through undeclared and unofficial control, which takes on a more alarming form than open and official control. Under such invisible intervention, the telecommunication regulatory authority shut down online news portals without any announcement or explanation. Many newspapers have been hit hard by unofficial embargoes placed on private sector companies, preventing them from advertising in these papers.
Journalists of the country’s two highest circulated dailies, are prohibited from entering the prime minister’s office on professional duty or even from attending any of her official programmes. A new precedence was set recently when live media coverage of the students’ movement was prohibited. And for the first time in the 29 years after the reinstatement of democracy, on 7 April the declaration of a newspaper was cancelled. This was the top local daily of Narayanganj, Juger Chinta, which had provoked the ire of ruling party’s local leaders. This news, however, did not appear in the mainstream media.
Ironically, the government maintains that the media enjoys more freedom than ever before. To prove their point, they spew out statistics about hundreds of newspapers being published and the dozens of TV channels that have been given permission. Speaking at a press conference on 27 April, the prime minister Sheikh Hasina said that new TV channels would serve to expand the job market.
Two years ago on the same day and in this same column I quoted the global human rights organisation Amnesty International, saying that the government was using the media (quantified) rights as evidence of freedom of expression. But most of the media was owned or controlled by political supporters of the ruling coterie. The media has plurality, but all sing the same tune. There is no place for difference of opinion, said Amnesty. And now we hear that providing jobs to the jobless is another motive behind liberally providing licences to party supporters. But freedom of the press is not about numbers, it is about the scope to criticise and to express divergent views.
Actually such trends are followed in all countries with propensities towards authoritarianism. The strategy is to inundate the people with a steady flow of news, effectively elbowing out important or disturbing news. And in keeping with economic theory, when supply is more than demand, an industry is bound to weaken. In this weak state, dependence on the government grows and the politicians stand to gain.
Bangladesh has fallen again, this time by four places, in the freedom of press index drawn up by the global organisation for journalists, Reporters San Frontieres (RSF). Mentioning the ruling Awami League, RSF stated the worst collateral victims ahead of the 2018 election were the journalists who faced violence and the attacks on freedom of expression.
However, the new reality emerging all over the world is violence against journalists, particularly by the politicians in power and their followers.
US president Donald Trump continuously berates and provokes the media. Before the 2016 election in the US, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) termed Trump as a threat to journalists. And now Trump stands as an inspiration to extreme right-wing authoritarian autocratic leaders.
But the difference between the US and others is that country’s First Amendment. Because of this clause in the constitution which guarantees freedom of expression, the journalists can easily point out when he tells lies. Washington Post has a separate cell to identify his lies and misleading statements. According to them, till last week as president, Trump told lies and made misleading statements 10,111 times. And in October last year, the New Yorker ran a cartoon of a naked Trump behind a dais, with the caption ‘Exposed’, highlighting his lies.
Satire and satirical cartoons are almost extinct in Bangladesh due to self-censorship incited by fear. Article 39 of the constitution guarantees freedom of expression and thought, but the question remains as to whether we have a judiciary that can protect those rights. But even amidst all this adversity, we firmly hope that the fight for a free media never dies down.
* Kamal Ahmed is a senior journalist. This piece appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.