There is more at stake than freedom of press
The notion of today's press freedom is deeply rooted in the idea of freedom of speech and expression, intellectual freedom, liberty of thought, etc. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, given that the basis of a democratic government is "the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right [to freely express one's opinions]." Because, "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights."
Undeniably, the modern media has failed to fully inform the people to the extent necessary for many things to be set right. Also irrefutable is the fact that the media itself is partly responsible for this failure, resulting in people's confidence in what is often referred to as the 'mainstream media', being at its lowest ever in certain parts of the world.
At the same time, however, placing the entirety of the blame 'uniformly' on the media itself would be a misnomer. First, because the environment in which the media operates varies from country to country. And second, because the 'constraints'— an age-old problem faced by all those who have sought to convey a message that others had preferred to have kept hidden — that the media faces in regards to what it can and cannot disseminate vary as well (from place to place, situation to situation, etc.).
Despite the challenges, scholars, philosophers, journalists (in more recent times) and others have been fighting for the freedom to publish their work without the threat, fear or reality of being persecuted for centuries. The unfettered dissemination of information, ideas, etc., however, has always been opposed, in one form or another, by powerful sections of virtually every society. Mainly because ideas have a tendency to challenge the powerful and empower the weak.
Before the invention of the movable printing press by Johannes Gutenberg for example, it was the Catholic Church which almost entirely controlled the production of books. Gutenberg's invention allowed the cheap production of books for the first time, challenging the church's monopoly and allowing for different viewpoints to be heard.
When Professor of Theology Martin Luther posted his '95 Theses' on a church door in Germany, criticising its practice of selling 'indulgences' — paying the church in return for a reduction of one's time in purgatory — the printing press spread his writings throughout the country in two weeks and most of Christendom in less than a month, launching the Protestant Reformation and challenging the power of the Catholic Church. In response, Pope Alexander VI, in 1501, issued an edict against unlicensed printing and in 1535 Francis I of France prohibited — under penalty of death — the printing of books altogether.
Similar attempts at censoring the free flow of information and the media have been made throughout the ages. What is sometimes different today are simply the means that are used. For example, authoritarian regimes have frequently used 'anti-terror' laws in recent years to crack down on journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported in 2013 that "The number of journalists jailed worldwide hit 232 in 2012, 132 of whom were held on anti-terror or other national security charges," both setting new "records in the 22 years CPJ has documented imprisonments."
What some may find surprising is that similar practices are shockingly taking place also in countries that proclaim to be the beacons of democracy. In 2014, a British High Court for example, ruled that journalist Glenn Greenwald's partner could be treated like a terrorist because he was trying to deliver leaked documents to reporters. Journalists and whistleblowers in the US too have recently been treated the same way and increasingly so.
Given the current climate, it should, therefore, come as no surprise to find journalists facing severe pressure to do their jobs in almost all corners of the earth. Rights organisation Article 19, in a report titled Bangladesh: Violations against journalists and online activists in 2016, revealed to have recorded "320 violations, including three murders, against 141 journalists, three online activists and three officials of a publishing house," in 2016.
These violations included "attacks on physical integrity, including murder, attempted murder, serious bodily injury, abduction and attempted abduction, intimidation and threats, harassment through unwarranted application of laws, including criminal defamation cases, vexation cases, and the use of Section 57 of the ICT Act", among others. All this combined has made journalism a dangerous profession in our country to say the least.
In its World Press Freedom Index 2017, Reporters Without Borders (RWB) ranked Bangladesh 146th among 180 countries in terms of press freedom — slipping two notches from the previous year — and warned of a "tipping point" for journalism, going as far as to say that "media freedom throughout the world has never been as threatened as it is now."
What, however, needs to be realised from this is that, it is not only press freedoms that are under threat, but rather the basic tenets of democracy from which press freedoms are derived in the first place, that are currently under attack. And that is something that should concern everyone. Because it is not only the media that benefits from rights such as freedom of expression and thought, but rather all individuals in a democracy and democracy itself, which cannot function without a free press.
Once again, as Thomas Jefferson had said, "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter." Why? Because a government which does not tolerate a free press (or freedom of speech, thought, expression, etc.), surely isn't going to act in ways that would be tolerable to those who aspire to be free human beings.
The writer is a member of the Editorial team at The Daily Star.