Published on 12:00 AM, May 03, 2024

Press Freedom Day: Climate of fear stifling media in South Asia

Speakers tell Dhaka event


A climate of fear, intolerance, clampdown, and stifling of independent voices persists in South Asia, said speakers at World Press Freedom Day events in the capital yesterday.

Transparency International Bangladesh organised the events in association with UNESCO and Article 19 at TIB's Dhanmondi office.

Speaking at a discussion titled "Media Defence for Crisis Reporting", Sabina Inderjit, vice president of the International Federation of Journalists, said the ongoing economic crisis in the region has had a huge impact on press freedom.

"Most mainstream media outlets are dependent on government advertisements. However, the government is not willing to share advertisements with the media outlets that are critical of it."

Additionally, subsidies to newspapers have been cut down due to the economic crisis, resulting in a large number of journalists leaving the profession and the closure of hundreds of newspapers in the region, she added.

Apart from the government clamping down on press freedom, most of the media houses are owned by corporations, which results in compromised credibility as the corporate houses want to be on the right side of the government, Sabina noted.

Citing statistics on attacks on journalists, she said the press is under threat because the internet is being restricted in many countries and laws are being formulated to control the media.

Participating in the discussion, TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said they acknowledge the global decline in democracy and press freedom.

"It is all is related to the political game that goes on ... All our institutions are so discretionary and politically controlled. It is a one-sided game."

About the Digital Security Act, he said it was framed to not only target the media but also the civil society.

"In the name of DSA, now the Cyber Security Act, a state of insecurity has been created in everyone in this country, and media, of course, is the main target."

Journalists and media experts from Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, India, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka took part in the discussion, which was moderated by Shafiqul Alam, bureau chief of Agence France-Presse in Dhaka.

The panelists for this session were Hezekiel Dlamini, adviser for UNESCO'S Communication and Information for South Asia in the New Delhi regional office; Yeshi Pelmo, programme officer of Journalist Association of Bhutan; Radhika Roy, litigation counsel of Internet Freedom Foundation; Mohamed Junayed Saleem, senior member of Maldives Journalist Association; Viranjana Herath, chairperson,and founder of Media Law Forum; and Ashita Singh, associate project officer of UNESCO'S New Delhi Regional Office.

Earlier, in a separate discussion titled "Journalism in the Face of Environmental Crisis", the speakers said the space for freedom of media and civil society has been shrinking in Bangladesh as the laws meant to safeguard those are in fact harmful.

They said people have taken advantage of the loopholes in the laws for "targeted abuse" against journalists reporting on crucial issues such as environment degradation.

Media reporting and activities by the civil society to protect the environment has become more challenging amid the shrinking space for press freedom, they added.

The campaign to save the environment has become tougher because those who are harming it mostly belong to the influential quarters that get protection from a section of the authorities concerned, who are also a part of the process and benefit from collusion, the panelists observed.

State Minister for Information and Broadcasting Mohammad Ali Arafat, who was the chief guest at the discussion, said the government will welcome any kind of criticism as long as it is grounded in facts.

"We do have an understanding that press freedom is all about right reporting … At the same time, disinformation also exists in our society and elsewhere."

When press freedom is abused through disinformation, it adversely affects the democratic progress of society and the people at large, he said, stressing the need for collective efforts to fight disinformation.

Pointing at the shrinking space for media, TIB's Iftekharuzzaman said that in the case of laws like Cyber Security Act, which has replaced the Digital Security Act, there has been "purposeful, spiteful and targeted" misuse or abuse against reporting on graft, misgovernance and a lack of accountability.

He said the dysfunctionality of key state institutions has made things worse.

Due to an insecure and intimidating ambience, journalists and civil society activists have to undergo "involuntary self-censorship".

He called upon the authorities concerned to uphold the freedom of media and civil society and end the "shoot the messenger culture".

Rejwanul Haq, chairman of Broadcast Journalist Center, said journalists face risks while reporting on environmental issues because those who are destroying the nature are influential.

Swedish Ambassador to Bangladesh Alexandra Berg von Linde said that while the media and government have different roles and responsibilities, the former can support the latter by serving the society with facts and information.

Susan Viza, Unesco representative to Bangladesh, said the key role of journalists, while reporting on environmental issues, should be to bridge the gap between the scientists, government and civil society to ensure that the people are getting credible information.