Each year journalists, news media and supporters of free and independent journalism across the world celebrate November 2 as a red-letter day for journalism. The UN General Assembly declared this day as the “International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists” in General Assembly Resolution A/RES/68/163. It urged the member states to adopt and implement specific measures countering the present culture of impunity for crimes against journalists. The date commemorates the abduction and killing of two French journalists of Radio France International, Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlonin while they were on assignment in Mali on November 2, 2013. The resolution condemns all forms of harassment, attack and violence against journalists and also urges member states to act to the best extent possible to prevent the same, ensure accountability and bring the perpetrators to justice. It further urges member states to ensure that victims have access to appropriate remedies and that a safe and enabling environment prevails for the journalists to perform their work independently and without interference.
But before going further, let us examine the case of Ahmed Deepto a young and promising journalist aged 27, who was on assignment when he came under attack by a group of miscreants at the Science Laboratory intersection in Dhaka. Deepto spent the next few days in intensive care unit at the hospital and had to seek a two-month leave from work upon release from the hospital. Not only Deepto, but several other journalists, photojournalists and freelancers also came under attack on that day when they were covering the students’ uprising calling for safer roads on August 5, 2018. There was much hue and cry demanding justice for the attack by individuals who allegedly belonged to the students’ faction of the ruling party. Ministers pledged to bring the miscreants to book but nothing happened. The best part is that Deepto and his comrades did not give up their pens and cameras, or their constitutional right to freedom of expression.
He survived the attack to share the horror and trauma he went through. But justice is still a far cry since the brutal murder of Meherun Runi and Sagar Sarowar, a well-known journalist couple, in their Dhaka apartment on February 11, 2012. Although the then home minister and top brass of the law enforcement agencies assured the nation that they will bring the killers to justice, the case remains shrouded in mystery till now.
The worst-case so far is perhaps the state-sponsored assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, an unorthodox Saudi journalist for The Washington Post and former editor-in-chief of Al-Arab News Channel. He was murdered by the agents of the Saudi Arabian government inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018.
A most worrying trend for the journalists is that countries in the west and some countries in Europe, traditionally known as protectors of freedom of expression, are now questioning the credibility of the media and even terming them as “enemy of the people and state” in a bid to discredit and weaken their work. When the whole world condemned Khashoggi’s assassination and demanded a fair probe, President Donald Trump, despite a CIA assessment that the Saudi crown prince had ordered the killing, refused to take a definite and strong stance. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) termed Trump’s stance as a dangerous lack of leadership in the protection of journalists.
According to CPJ, a total of 1053 journalists were killed between 2007 and 2019. Of them, 736 journalists were killed where motives were confirmed meaning that these were various forms of retaliation killing for reporting and making information available to the public. 14 journalists were killed during the same period in Bangladesh including the brutal murder of Sagar-Runi. CPJ research found that in 90 percent of cases the killers remain free and go unpunished, which leads to more killings that ultimately result in the breakdown of law and judicial system.
To prevent this catastrophic disintegration, democracy and the press must complement each other. Other than the state-level accountability institutions, journalist and the media hold the state, government and its officials accountable for actions that affect the lives of the people of the society they live in. But their actions for ensuring accountability of the mechanisms often make their lives vulnerable—they face threats and attacks on their lives simply for carrying out their duties, while the perpetrators get impunity. Thanks to the absence of a strong legal framework or presence of loopholes in the legal system that such attacks are carried out on the people who exercise their right to freedom of expression. Such killings are linked with a serious level of human rights abuse, crimes and corruption that damage the society as a whole.
Like any other democracy in the world, Bangladesh must fulfil its obligations to protect freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution of 1972. We must not forget that presses were burnt down by the Pakistani forces in a bid to silence freedom of expression, and journalists including Shahidullah Kaiser, Selina Pervin, Sirajuddin Hossain and A K M Shahidullah are among the millions who had sacrificed their lives for the birth of our beloved country. We must accept the fact that democracy and journalism must sail together for the betterment of each other and to create a check and balance mechanism. The state must ensure an enabling legal environment for the journalists, take threats against them seriously and vigorously prosecute the criminals who attack journalists.
Since disinformation is on the rise, the safety of journalists is even more important now so that they can report and disclose the truth for the greater benefit of the society as a whole. In order to be able to expose the truth, journalists need a free and safe environment where they can perform their duties both online and offline, without censorship or persecution, fear of harassment and political pressure.
A favourable environment for freedom of expression is a must. However, Bangladesh at present appears not to fit the mould—thanks to formal restrictions through legislations like ICT Act 2006 and Digital Security Act 2018. This is not all, we have several acts, policies and laws in Bangladesh that directly or indirectly limit freedom of expression; sadly, we have no law that protects the rights of the journalists and guarantees a conducive environment for journalism. It is high time that the state and the government reinforced preventive measures and created a national safety mechanism in line with the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity. As independent and free journalism is the backbone of a free society, undermining it means undermining our freedom.
Meer Ahsan Habib is a communication for development professional. He can be reached at email@example.com