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   Volume 10 |Issue 36 | September 23, 2011 |


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Press Freedom at Stake

Rifat Munim

Haunting memories of the colonial past, of draconian laws and rules to stifle voices of dissent, are best forgotten. When they are represented in annals, history books and the arts, the objective is invariably to reinforce the liberated present from a shackled past. In this country, however, while democracy in its troubled journey, has gone a long way to ensure freedom of expression and people's right to information, some constitutional provisions in the form of laws have been manipulated by subsequent governments to conjure up the ghastly apparitions from the past. To mention just a few, the BNP government shut down Ekushey TV in its second tenure while the incumbent government has followed suit with Channel-1 and Jamuna television. Besides, the present government also seems to resort to some laws that put certain media persons behind bars without putting them on trial following the legal procedure.

Barrister Sara Hossain,
Photo: zahedul i khan

In the backdrop of such draconian practices comes the news of a draft National Broadcasting Policy submitted to the Parliamentary Standing Committee, which, according to sources in the information ministry, has proposed to restrict the electronic media in respect of broadcasting news items or programmes that may make derogatory comments about national figures such as Bangabandhu, pose threat to national security, attempt at character assassination, stand against a friendly foreign country, or cause incitement to crimes. The policy, if implemented, will certainly be another blow particularly to the Right to Information Act 2009 and to press freedom in general. However, a highly placed source at the information ministry has said that the draft will not contradict with the constitution or the RTI act.

According to section 39 of the Constitution,

(1) Freedom of thought and conscience is guaranteed.

(2) Subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence—
(A) the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression; and
(B) freedom of the press are guaranteed.

Taking these constitutional provisions into account, the aforementioned information ministry official seems to hit the nail on the head about the draft policy not being contradictory with the constitution.

However, Barrister Sara Hossain, honorary director of Blast (Bangladesh Legal Aid and Service Trust), says that although the constitution makes for some restrictions, it never predicates those restrictions on preposterous grounds. “It's true that we do not have an absolute right to freedom of expression under the Bangladesh Constitution. Article 39 allows for restrictions on this right on three grounds. First, the restriction must be 'reasonable' (and this must be assessed objectively). Second, it must be subject to 'law'. In other words, the government cannot impose these restrictions just by announcing them in some order or policy, it must actually legislate to this end. Third, the object or purpose of the restriction must be related to one of the specific grounds mentioned in the constitution (i.e. defamation, sedition, contempt, public order, security of the state etc).”

The draft policy, as reported in the media, specifically mentions that no programme broadcast in electronic media can make derogatory comments about national figures such as Bangabandhu. It also aims at holding the television or radio channels responsible if the talk shows are found to air any distorted information or material. It has not been clarified yet whether criticism of national figures is to be regarded as derogatory. As for the bar on talk shows, it seems to be yet another step on the part of the government towards stifling the critical voices of the intellectuals as well as media.

“I have not yet read the actual text of the draft Broadcasting Policy. But from reports in the press it appears that it purports to impose restrictions on what can be said on talk shows, and also on making any derogatory comments about certain political figures. Such restrictions appear to be completely arbitrary and to grossly violate fundamental rights to freedom of expression,” says Sara Hossain. Referring to some reports leaked by Wikileaks, she adds, “We recently learned from Wikileaks about the de facto censorship of electronic media by the DGFI. Now it seems that we are going to get de jure censorship of precisely the same kind (in fact even worse!) under an elected government, which is ironic to say the least. Bangabandhu was a political as well as public figure and as such people have a right to discuss him and his achievements as well as his limitations. Trying to penalise any commentary or criticism of him is a wholly absurd idea and could only be sanctioned by those who believe in totalitarianism.”

While talking about press freedom, media experts usually refer to some laws which are conducive to curbing media freedom. Apart from the recent Anti-terrorism Act 2009, the other related laws are The Special Powers Act, 1974; the Printing Presses and Publications (declaration and registration) Act, 1973; The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898; The Penal Code, 1860; The Official Secrets Act, 1923; and The Contempt of Court Act, 1926. AJM Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan, Associate Professor in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka, in one of his write-ups on press freedom says, “The Official Secrets Act may be used to hide government information while the Special Powers Act has provisions to punish journalists, shut down newspapers and impose censorship for prejudicial reporting. Empowered by the Printing Presses and Publications Act, a district magistrate can revoke any publication license and shut down a publication. The Penal Code has provisions to punish anyone including journalists to protect national security, law and order and prevent moral decay. The Code of Criminal Procedure empowers the government to ban any publication which is treasonous and hurts people's religious and social sentiments.”

About the draconian laws, Sara Hossain says that many of the laws that currently permit restrictions on free speech are pre-constitutional while some were enacted in the free and independent Bangladesh and are post-constitutional. “In both cases, the laws may not stand the test of constitutional scrutiny. However, unfortunately for us - and perhaps this is a sign of really how weak our human rights movement still is or how little confidence we have in the ability of our courts to be independent of the political powers that be - there have been no such challenges to date that have resulted in any specific judgments (there have been many by the way in neighbouring countries).”

The present government in its election manifesto has said, “The freedom of all types of mass media and flow of information will be ensured” and “Investigation and trial of assassination of all journalists will be made expeditiously and the real criminals will be given exemplary punishment. Persecution and intimidation of journalists will be stopped.” That promise flies in the face of the new National Broadcasting Policy that is on the cards. If the government now wants to resume its vow on press freedom, it must discuss all the facets of a policy as important as this with the private stakeholders and of course, with the opposition; and only then should it be placed to the parliament.



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