It is hardly a new phenomenon to see how governments, especially in South Asia, claiming to be democratic to suit their convenience, become anything but that when it comes to dissenting views. Curbing press freedom, in particular, will always become the target for governments that have succumbed to insecurities of their own creation. Corruption of leaders or their cronies seems to be the topmost reason for state paranoia of the media which is seen as a thorn in the flesh rather than an essential component of democratic maturity.
Governments are often on the defensive and would rather hide the dirty laundry generated by wayward loyalists than have them let out to dry by pesky, persistent media. All kinds of tactics are used to intimidate and weaken the press. These include using draconian laws to arrest and incarcerate journalists for years on the grounds of defamation, sedition or hurting religious sentiments, maligning them in parliamentary sessions (where they are not present to defend themselves), threatening them through their state agencies or using more surreptitious means by withdrawing government advertisements, creating bureaucratic tangles that inevitably threaten to shut down a newspaper. Nationalistic rhetoric is also used to malign journalists to provoke public anger against them.
It begs the question: can independent journalism survive in this hostile environment? More importantly, how will such media gagging affect the democratic spirit?
One of the most cunning ways a state has tried to throttle press freedom is the way Himal Southasian, a 29-year-old publication from Nepal, known for its pioneering role in cross-border journalism, was forced to suspend its operation in 2016. Instead of directly censoring the magazine's content, the government of the time created impossible bureaucratic hurdles that drained Himal's financial resources dry. The publication was dependent on external funding; it employed non-Nepali staff and had many contributors outside Nepal for its wide coverage of South Asian affairs. The state agencies concerned created inordinate delays for grants to be approved, refused to give work permits to non-Nepali staff and made it difficult for the magazine to pay its writers abroad. Finally, the arrest of Kanak Mani Dixit, Himal's founding editor and Trust chairman, on dubious grounds of financial irregularities made the suspension inevitable. Fortunately, Himal, being one of the most popular publications in South Asia, has made a dramatic comeback—albeit from Colombo where it will start publishing soon.
Despite having a long tradition of a free media—freer definitely compared to its neighbours—India, too, has experienced serious attacks on press freedom. There have been instances of the government trying to apply pressure on newspapers critical of the establishment by withdrawing advertisements for newspapers not falling in line. Sometimes owners of newspapers have been targeted by focusing on the other businesses they have and trying to dig up dirt on them.
India has, in fact, slipped down two ranks compared to last year in the Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontières, RSF) World Press Freedom Index 2018. RSF is a global non-profit body that works on the freedom of the press. RSF, in its report states, “with Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of 'anti-national' thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.” RSF has also mentioned how the threat of prosecution with a serious enough crime as sedition (that carries a life term sentence) has led to increasing self-censorship. The killing of three journalists in India because of their work has added to the general unease amongst the journalist community.
Despite such drawbacks the Indian media has fought back and sometimes achieved small victories. The Modi government's attempt to blackmail journalists with removal of government accreditation if they wrote “fake” stories backfired because the media fraternity rose up in arms. The PM then pressed the Information and Broadcasting ministry to withdraw it which was a big boost for media freedom.
The recent virulent media criticism of the BJP government regarding the latter's initial role in handling the Kathua and Unnao rape cases in Jammu and Kashmir and Uttar Pradesh also indicates that the media is more confident about expressing anti-establishment views than before.
Such confidence is on the wane in Pakistan where, despite the obvious solidarity among the journalist community, press freedom is constantly being muzzled by the state. On April 6, Geo TV, which has become increasingly critical of the military in the past few years, was taken off air and was not accessible in many parts of the country. In 2014, one of its anchors, Hamid Mir, was shot—an assassination attempt, he says, directly linked to the military security forces.
There have been instances, moreover, of media house managements dropping regular op-ed columns and removing online editions of published articles and anchors being asked not to do live shows. The ongoing curbs on freedom of expression were protested through a statement circulated on April 19 signed by over a hundred Pakistani journalists, editors, columnists and media persons following another statement signed by prominent academics including Noam Chomsky.
In Bangladesh, press freedom has been heavily bashed by draconian laws. Section 57 of the ICT Act 2006, in particular, has been a journalist's most formidable opponent. Section 57 deals with defamation, hurting religious sentiments, causing deterioration of law and order and instigating against any person or organisation through publishing or transmitting any material in websites or in electronic form. It provides for punishment of a maximum of 14 years in prison. The ambiguous definition of what constitutes defamation can make anything published about an individual to be considered defamatory if that individual feels defamed by the content. Already several journalists have been arrested and sent to jail while others have managed bail. The Digital Security Bill 2018, (waiting to be passed in parliament) apparently needed to fight cybercrime, has also very stringent provisions that can effectively make life hell for any journalist. It has incorporated the much criticised Section 57 (scrapped from the ICT Act 2006) which carries long jail sentences and heavy fines for offences that are vaguely defined. How does one determine, for instance, what “hurting religious sentiments” or “going against the spirit of the Liberation War” or “causing deterioration of law and order” is?
The journalist community has expressed their worry to the government and so far there is a sliver of hope. The Editors' Council has met with the law ministry expressing their concerns over section 21, 25, 28, 31, 32 and 43 of the proposed Act that would severely constrain freedom of speech and independent journalism; and the law minister has assured that the proposed law will be scrutinised to make sure that the act will not be used to target journalists.
The result of these restraints on press freedom, whether through laws or indirect pressures, has been increasing self-censorship all over South Asia which may get worse before it gets better. Election year is always a challenge for the media since this is the time when governments become especially edgy, slapping on laws to curb media freedoms, making it virtually impossible for journalists to freely report on things like corruption, politicisation of institutions, state intimidation of opposition—anything that is deemed to jeopardise a sure win in the polls.
For developing countries that have embraced democracy, at least in their constitutional framework, these shackles on the media are more than just embarrassing home truths exposed to the rest of the world. Without independent journalism being allowed to operate freely, development in the real sense will constantly be compromised. Without investigative reporting on corruption, for example, governments lose an important informant on ground realities regarding the millions spent on projects to alleviate poverty, to boost the education system and health sector, to make sure public institutions and infrastructure work. Without an efficient, effective watchdog, governments must work with dangerous blind spots and are therefore more vulnerable to national crises, inefficiency in development endeavours and failure to win public confidence. Choking the media amounts to taking away people's right to know the truth. It also silences their voice. Basically a death sentence for the democratic spirit.
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.