World Press Freedom Day: Unattained aspiration
As a nation Bangladeshis commemorated the golden jubilee of their independence a little more than a month ago. While the official functions and ceremonies were effectively restricted to the invited guests counting top dignitaries from the region and far, ordinary citizens weary of the unannounced blockades of the main thoroughfares (purportedly to provide security to VIPs and facilitate their movements) while reeling under the deadly Covid-19 pandemic, got an opportunity to engage in introspection about the significance of the anniversary and what independence meant to them.
Millions of Bangladeshis remembered with fondness and pride the thumping of the streets of Dhaka by the participants of countless processions observing the civil disobedience movement beckoned by their unquestioned leader on March 7, 1971. They shivered in horror in recalling the barbarity that was unleashed on the ordinary people on the night of March 25 lasting for nine long months. They noted with deep anguish the ultimate sacrifice of the valiant freedom fighters and members of their families. Bangladeshis also remembered the myriad scenes of jubilant crowds showering petals on the returning members of the Mukti Bahini in revving jeeps and fluttering of the red, green and yellow flags on rooftops of tin-sheds to multistoried buildings in December 1971. At that moment they all aspired and genuinely believed that this would be the new beginning.
For all patriotic Bangladeshis, gaining a separate homeland after defeating the brutal Pakistani army and their henchmen was the single most important event of their lifetime. While the netizens celebrated the event by posting their photos, donning green and red dresses, conscientious citizens reflected if indeed the cherished goals of decades of democratic struggle and the nine-month gory war of liberation were achieved. To them attainment of statehood and the concomitant national flag were only the symbols of the beginning of the realisation of larger and substantive goals to establish "equality, human dignity and social justice" that found place in the proclamation of independence of the provisional government of Bangladesh formed in Mujibnagar on April 10, 1971.
The deliberations of the Constituent Assembly that was tasked to frame the Constitution of the Republic in 1972 also reveals that democracy based on the rule of law was the foremost concern of the architects of the Constitution. Ensuring a balance between various arms of the state with the executive being accountable to the legislature and an independent judiciary was a cherished goal. Citizens' right to hold public offices and elect representatives of their choice to public offices through impartial, fair and credible elections was yet another objective. No less important was ensuring enjoyment of other civil and political rights and an effective mechanism for people to seek redress. Included among those rights were equality before the law, protection of the law and freedoms of assembly, of association, of thought, conscience, and of speech. Freedom of the press is a pre-requisite to ensure enjoyment of freedom of thought, conscience and of speech and expression.
During the course of the jubilee celebrations the achievement of the government was claimed on economic and (a few) social indicators. However, its performance fell far short on the goals listed above. In effect, there has been a roll back on certain instances and freedom of the press has been one of those.
Over the years, the state in Bangladesh has curtailed free speech through legislative instruments and administrative practices. Foremost among those are the Information and Communication Act (ICT), 2006 and the Digital Security Act (DSA), 2018. From the inception of DSA on October 8, 2018 until March 3, 2021, 1,228 cases were lodged. Interestingly, of those as many as 549 cases (45 percent) were dismissed.
The defamation provision in the DSA and Penal Code of 1860 is another legal instrument to intimidate journalists and free thinking individuals. While in most countries defamation is a civil offence, it is a criminal offence in Bangladesh. Although Section 198 of the CrPC of 1898 explicitly stipulates that the plaintiff has to be an aggrieved party, in practice defamation cases filed by individuals who had no locus standi to file them were admitted by the magistrates. The Special Powers Act also accords substantive powers to state functionaries to detain individuals, including journalists and whistleblowers for committing "prejudicial act". The draconian laws and administrative practices and their wanton application create conditions for self-censorship by the media, sapping the vitality of the Fourth Estate.
Meting out violence against journalists is a regular phenomenon. On several occasions journalists were murdered for conducting their professional duties. Odhikar reports that at least 15 journalists were killed from January 1, 2009 to January 1, 2021. Investigations in the high profile murder cases of Sarwar Shagor and Meherun Runi of Dhaka (2012), Jamaluddin of Jashore (2012), Ahmed Kabid of Narshindi (2012) and dozen others are yet to register any progress. The criminal justice system of the country tainted by malfeasance, incompetence, inefficiency and delay has been largely unable to provide due redress. An incisive Daily Star feature (November 8, 2019) notes that in 23 years, at least 32 journalists, publishers and writers were killed, "but only four of their murder cases ever saw the light of justice".
In recent years journalists have been subjected to a range of physical attacks, repression, intimidation and harassment. In a sensational case in October 2020 journalist Golam Sarwar remained involuntarily disappeared for three days and was tortured for posting a piece in his news portal alleging corruption of a politically connected powerful industrialist of Chattogram. Although little progress has been made in the investigation of the case he filed, Sarwar was slapped with two defamation cases, forced to vacate his rented premise and is under pressure to remove his report. At a press conference in Dhaka on April 12 he alleged that attempts were made on his life and he was under constant surveillance.
A number of reporters in the capital and other towns and cities have been physically attacked while performing their duties. A number of journalists including those of Manabzamin and The Daily Star were assaulted while covering the elections of December 2019. In August 2018, during the peaceful protest demanding safe roads protesters and journalists came under intense attack from the ruling party activists wearing helmets and the law enforcement agencies. In a number of instances journalists belonging to local dailies including those of Mymensingh and Rangpur were beaten up.
In most instances these attacks are orchestrated by the financially and politically powerful, often connected with the establishment, with active support of the state agencies. Such tactics work as major impediments for journalists to work freely. Odhikar sources further inform that from January 1, 2009 to January 1, 2021, 1,024 journalists sustained injuries after being attacked while conducting their professional duties. During the same period cases were lodged against 248 journalists and 89 were arrested.
The State also enjoys a number of prerogatives to control the media. Included among those is the authority to issue license, control and direct the flow of advertisements and influence the formats and contents of reports/programmes through "informal advice", a practice that had its roots during the military dictatorships.
The carrot and stick policy of the state and the ruling establishment have led to the erosion of civil society institutions. The concomitant result has been a fractured civil society along partisan lines, taking a toll on the media fraternity as well. This, in turn, has created conditions for the growth of "embedded journalism", a relatively recent phenomenon that encourages journalists not to search for facts and be objective in reporting events, but engage in rationalising what they want to present as facts, very often at the behest of the state. Needless to say, perks, positions, privilege and power come in handy in return. All these have a debilitating effect on the free press and the citizens' right to access information and alternative interpretations of facts.
Freedom of expression and that of the press has remained a chimera for the people of Bangladesh. Armed with an array of laws and administrative practices backed by brute force, those in command of the state in Bangladesh and their cohorts are engaged in denying the citizens their right to access facts and contending interpretations of events and developments. This is a flagrant violation of the spirit of the Liberation War. It's a pity that the sections of the citizenry who have taken up the mantle to defend that spirit have thus far remained oblivious to this aberration. Likewise, the apathy of academics, learned bodies and artists, poets and writers' guilds is also painfully disappointing.
The right to free speech and free press is the pathway to secure other rights. Therefore, in this golden jubilee year of independence it is incumbent on every conscientious citizen of Bangladesh to defend the right to free speech, the mother of all rights.
CR Abrar is an academic with interest on human rights and migration issues.