Freedom of the press
FREEDOM of the press is a much talked about subject, mostly in developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, where democracy is often in short supply and floundering, where freedom of expression is stifled, the press is gagged and censored, where public interest, welfare of people, rule of law and human rights suffer neglect and denial under a despotic rule. Yet, freedom of press, apart from legislature and an independent judiciary, is the most important prerequisite of democracy, which alone can ensure public interest and welfare of people and promote rights, equality and justice in society.
But there is nothing absolute in the exercise of freedom of press which must be tempered by a sense of duty and social responsibility, without which it is bound to degenerate into license for irresponsible behaviour. Both in developed and developing countries, the press and the media, more often than not, are constrained essentially by narrow political, economic and vested interest and the agenda of owners and publishers, in disregard of editorial independence, and are, thus, found wanting in the presentation of news and views without bias and prejudice. The casualty is the larger interest of the people and society.
The record of press freedom in Bangladesh since independence, unfortunately, is not glorious by any account. It received a battering from all governments -- during the one party rule till 1975, military and quasi-military rule till the end of 1990 and elected dictatorial rule till end of 2006 -- through the banning and cancellation of newspaper publications, and persecution, and court cases against editors, publishers and journalists. Instances of killing and kidnapping of some journalists were not few and far between.
However, it is remarkable that now there is no curb on press freedom in Bangladesh, although the country has been under emergency rule since the present caretaker government assumed power in January last year. It is important to note that it is for the first time in Bangladesh that there has not been a single instance of victimisation, persecution or harassment of journalists. It is unprecedented in a country under emergency rule.
The government has lived up to the assurance given by the Chief Advisor Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed to the editors and representatives of the media in May last year, that the provision of the emergency power 2007 ordinance providing for restriction or punishment to errant press will not be applied to the media which enjoys full and unfettered freedom. He also wanted to see the national press play the role of a parliament, debating vital national issues in the absence of Jatiyo Sansad.
The press has, since, been critically discussing at will every action, measure and statement of the government, which is least rattled by constructive criticism but seems to accept in good grace any healthy criticism by the press and, not infrequently, amends its decisions in the light of press reaction.
A section of the press, particularly a mainstream English daily in its editorial comments and columns has consistently engaged itself in scurrilous and vituperative attacks on every action and statement of the government in order to hold it up for ridicule, hatred and disrepute to deliberately create disaffection among the public against the government. In this context, the mild government reaction, by way of phone calls and press advice, is considered as government interference. If this is true, as alleged by editors and representatives of journalist associations recently, it can be better appreciated when viewed against the background of the generally continuing liberal attitude of the government towards the media.
Those who complain of government interference had better remember, as a matter of contrast, the widespread and ruthless persecution and repression of the Indian press, let loose by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi under emergency powers.
The present caretaker government is grappling with daunting challenges of salvaging the country from chaos, disorder and anarchy arising out of all-pervasive corruption and institutional cirrhosis caused by crippling politicisation. Its sole aim is to transfer power to truly honest and competent elected popular representatives through a free and fair election at the end of December 2008.
In order to be able to ensure a sustainable and truly functional democracy to take roots after election, it has taken a number of reforms in the area of anti-corruption, administrative reorganisation and governance, separation of judiciary, an independent election commission, an independent public service commission, local government election, independent human rights commission and women emancipation and empowerment.
In order to make the government transparent and accountable by providing access to government information, it has initiated and circulated a draft Information Right 2008 ordinance for adoption after debate and discussion. The measure is an example to show that the government is well-meaning in its intention about press freedom.
Needless to say, the country is passing through a critical time and the government is precariously poised to balance the rising expectation of people with the stark ground realities of facing political and economic challenges. The government is working hard under extremely trying circumstances to restore the derailed engine of administration and governance back on track, and it is our collective and moral responsibility to cooperate with the government with patience so that its declared mission to transfer power to elected representatives at the end of December is successfully accomplished.
The press must play a significant role to contribute to the success of government efforts to achieve smooth transition to democracy without let or hindrance by unfounded insinuations, doubts and misgivings about the motives of the government. If anything, its sincerity of purpose is beyond question. There is good reason to believe that the caretaker government, comprising of technocrats exclusively, has no political affiliations or sympathies and apparently has no axe to grind.
Its performance may not be all perfect, but is certainly better by all accounts than that of all previous governments during the last 37 years. It deserves a chance. It cannot and will not fail our expectation. The alternative is a dismal descending to a disaster. The clamour for press freedom will then remain a far cry and a distant mirage.