Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion all have a double aspect - freedom of thought and freedom of action.— Frank Murphy
Till February 22, 2013 it was only the Shahbag's free-thinking bloggers, who were under threat of attack by religious fanatics. They consider the participants of the Shahbag movement as anti-Islamic. The news media, which is extensively covering this national, non-partisan movement demanding maximum punishment to all war criminals and banning political parties that collaborated with the Pakistan Army in 1971, also came under their fire.
Md Mazba Uddin, camera person of ATN News was on duty inside the boundary of 'Baitul Mokarram', the national mosque at around 11:30 am, last Friday. “We took an interview of a devotee who informed us that they won't create any trouble but will carry out a peaceful procession up to the Paltan intersection. After that when we were taking pictures, they suddenly began to attack us,” recounts Mazba Uddin, who was beaten along with other fellow journalists. “When (Jaheduzzaman) Tuhin bhai (ATN Bangla camera person) and I were attacked, they mentioned ATN Bangla, ATN News and Channel i, calling us 'agents of Shahbag'. They called journalists agents because we cover Shahbag,” says Mazba who was hit on the hand with a stick.
According to Nurul Islam, videographer of Independent TV, the agitation started as some devotees were annoyed by the police check at the entrance of the mosque. “Standing on the stairway, inside the mosque they were shouting 'they won't let us pray in our mosque'. I was standing at the foot of the stairs and taking pictures. Right before the prayer the situation inside got worse and they rushed towards the gates and tried to break them. I was taking that footage, when they turned on me shouting, 'This one is from Independent Television. They are enemies of Islam. Go to Shahbag. Why are you here?',” Nurul recalls.
Bayazid Islam Polin, video journalist of Somoy TV, witnessed the attack on Maasranga senior reporter Abdullah Tuhin, who was amongst the critically injured. “They tried to drag him inside the mosque while beating him severely. They hit him on the head with a brick. ATN Bangla's Tuhin bhai went to his rescue and also got assaulted,” he recalls. The journalists however said that police did not come to their rescue as they did not want to aggravate the situation as it was right before the Friday prayer.
Anwar Hossain Deputy Commissioner, Motijheel Division, Dhaka Metropolitan Police admits that they did not intervene as the incident took place inside the mosque boundary just before the prayer. “We had advised them to stay with us while reporting,” he says adding that since such situations had never occurred before, the journalists did not sense any danger and went inside the mosque for reporting.
Journalists of other cities also faced similar assault. The Chittagong Press Club was vandalised since the Gono-jagoron moncho (Chittagong city's platform of the Shahbag movement) was built in its premises. President of Chittagong Press Club, Ali Abbas says, “They did so to frighten the journalists. This press club was not attacked even in 1971 by the occupying Pakistani Army. This is very shameful, hurtful and I do not have words to condemn such acts.” Expressing his shock over the attack he says, “The press club belongs to everyone. A press club is the centre of meetings and protest, people place their statement and complaints here. I don't believe any conscientious person can attack a press club.”
While many journalists were assaulted directly by the fanatics, others like Arifuzzaman Piyash, cameraperson for Ekattor TV, was injured badly by stray police rubber bullets. His colleague, Shafique Ahmed, senior reporter of Ekattor TV, describes how the police opened fire indiscriminately at the procession as it crossed the Paltan intersection and attempted to move forward towards Shahbag. Piyash got trapped inside the mayhem; when Ahmed found him, he had about thirty splinters all over his body.
Journalists are aware of the risks involved in their profession, yet they do not expect to become targets in a confrontation between two groups, explains Fahim Munaim, CEO and Chief Editor of Maasranga Television. “When the journalists themselves become the target (of assault), they are totally unprotected. Regarding journalists' safety while on duty he says, “It is the state's moral responsibility to protect its citizens while they are carrying out our professional duties.”
Terming the attack on journalists as an assault on people's representatives, Information Minister Hasanul Huq Inu accuses religious fanatics of being intolerant to criticism and debates. He assures that the state will assess what measures can be taken to mitigate risks involved in this profession.
Senior journalist and researcher Afsan Chowdhury, however, is very skeptical about the state's assurance of safety. He says that journalists do not even expect police to protect them. “Maybe such a thought has evolved since the Shahbag movement is very close to the government's interest,” he says terming the movement as 'very unusual' since all movements in Bangladesh's history have taken place against the government.
Between Thoughts and Actions
From the very beginning Jamaat-e-Islami, one of the parties that collaborated with the Pakistan Army in 1971, has been trying to villify the Shahbag movement. Most of Jamaat's top leaders are on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the International Crimes Tribunal. Initially Jamaat tried to dismiss the movement as a 'government plot'. However, as the protest continued to attract the masses retaining its non-partisan feature, the party resorted to its old tricks of using religious sentiment to incite tension in the country. Following the murder of a blogger, Ahmed Rajib Haider on February 15, a widespread hate campaign started claiming that Haider had written anti-Islamic posts in his blog. A cyber war has been launched against bloggers, online activists and participants of the movement labelling them as atheists and anti-Islamists. Fabricated pictures and anti-Islamist write-ups are being posted on websites using the names of the organisers of the Shahbag movement to create confusion amongst the general public. A section of the news media is in turn re-publishing these alleged posts adding fuel to the fire. These led to the attacks by pro-Islamist groups all over the country on February 22. In some places language monuments have been vandalised and the national flag burnt.
Senior journalist Afsan Chowdhury, assesses the present situation as a battle between the supporters of Shahbag and those of Jamaat-e-Islami and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). “I do believe that the media has taken sides”, he says, “I do not find this taking sides as something acceptable. It becomes a problem if there isn't a difference between an activist and a journalist. I think the media is under pressure for fear of losing an audience if they do 'neutral' journalism.” He says that those who are reporting also belong to the Shahbag generation and they consider themselves as part of the movement. “This has happened repeatedly in Bangladesh's history of politics and journalism. Journalists have always chosen to support the side which would benefit them, be it during '52, '69, '71, '90 or now,” he asserts. Chowdhury explains that because we never practiced a culture of neutrality, such a situation has arisen and the other side is now considering journalists as an opposing force.
Whether neutrality should preside over news that may instigate religious tension, Chowdhury says, “There should never be any reports that may incite religious tension.” He blames BNP for creating such tension currently in the country, adding again that things have come to such a point since there is no place of neutrality in journalism in our country. “Amar Desh is BNP's newspaper. It is playing a political role, not a journalistic role,” he asserts calling the current situation “a media- based political struggle”.
According to Munaim, “A journalist has the moral responsibility of collecting and presenting objective news,” he says, “For a journalist there are no sides. A journalist will write what he sees and electronic media will broadcast what they capture.
“Everywhere in the world, each media house follows certain basic ethics of journalism. A journalist should know how far he can report,” he says. Explaining the difference between reporting and giving opinion, he says a reporter is not supposed to give opinions but nowadays that line is often crossed. “That is when they go beyond responsibility."
Munaim says we need to have a national media policy to ensure responsible journalism. At present there is no such policy for electronic media. “Though there is one for print media, very few follow it. In the case of print media, one can complain to the press council and the newspaper is asked to apologise or publish a rejoinder. There are no other ways to ensure accountability,” he informs. Munaim believes that banning a newspaper or a TV channel is not a solution, then again he reminds that with freedom of press comes responsibility.
“According to media policy, publishing or re-publishing indecent comments about an individual is punishable by law. We have been going through the existing law that deals with this. If anyone does such unlawful acts, we can cancel declaration as well as stop publication, if necessary,” warns the Information Minister, adding that the primary draft for broadcast policy is already under review and might be finalised by next month.
Freedom of press is one of the most crucial tools of democracy. For Bangladesh its importance is multiplied since in the absence of a strong people-oriented parliamentary democratic system, media is the only way through which the people's voice can reach their representatives. Both religious fanaticism and irresponsible journalism are threats to the freedom of Bangladeshi media.