The deputy commissioner of Dhaka did not exactly endear himself to anyone when he proposed the revival of a law that empowers bureaucrats to cancel the declarations of newspapers. He believes, or wants people in the corridors of power to believe, that there are newspapers in Bangladesh which engage in anti-state acts or which publish news that hurts the religious sentiments of people.
That has been an obnoxious way in which governments, beginning with the Ayub Khan regime in Pakistan, have sought to curb freedom of speech in the media. Any article or comment that questions the motives or decisions of the powers that be is construed as an anti-state act. As for religious sentiments, certain governments have consistently used faith as a tool to punish newspapers for crimes the newspapers did not commit. The deputy commissioner was thus stepping into dangerous ground. Bureaucrats of his kind have historically damaged democracy. They ought not to be permitted to go on engaging in such activities again.
The good news arising out of all this is that the parliamentary committee on the information ministry has taken the clear position that nothing should be done, either by way of reviving a dead black law or creating a new one, which aims at bureaucratic or government control of the media. It has sought a clarification of the matter from the minister for information, who has held out the assurance that the government has no plans to do anything of the kind.
One is reassured by the minister's response to the question raised by the parliamentary committee. The reassurance, made twice over a period of twenty four hours, is a sign that the government has taken serious note of the issue and will do nothing that might raise questions about its attitude to the media. Given the arbitrary manner in which governance has sometimes been exercised in the country by putatively democratically elected governments, there have naturally been concerns about the media's exercise of freedom.
In a country where the media have been subjected to brutality through the various martial law decrees --- in 1958, in 1969, in 1975, in 1982 --- and through such acts as a shutdown of all newspapers barring four by a civilian government in June 1975, there are reasons to be worried about the DC's suggestion. Censorship and 'advice' and other modes of intimidation have in the past systematically threatened the operation of a free press. There have been newspapers which have not been banned legally but which find their printing presses under lock and key for unexplained reasons.
These realities form the background to the worries of media practitioners. Worrying too is the DCs' demand that their powers be enhanced. History in our part of the world demonstrates without ambiguity that every time bureaucracy has seen an increase in its authority, democratic politics has gone on a nosedive. The government would be well-advised to be wary about advice proffered by bureaucrats given the regressive role they have played in our recent history. As for our DC in question, and others like him, they need to stick to the rules. By the way, there is the good suspicion that the declarations idea may not have been this DC's at all. Where, then, did it originate? That said, no DC should be indulged to an extent where he can ask for authority over elected representatives, even at the lowest tier of politics.
The parliamentary committee on the ministry of information is to be thanked for its gesture. We trust minister Inu and the government he is part of will prevail against the forces arrayed against the media. And we must all be on guard against DCs and other bureaucrats who presume to be on a higher perch than the rules of service that define their place in society.