Bangladesh Press Council: Is the protector turning into a ‘predator’?

It was on June 20, 2022 – thanks to a press briefing of Cabinet Secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam – that we were rudely awakened to the reality that the Press Council (Amendment) Act had been placed before the cabinet. The cabinet, in a preliminary consideration, had struck out the provision of fines up to Tk 10 lakhs for compromising state security, harming public harmony, and unethical journalism. The draft also proposed a fine of Tk 5 lakhs for violating Article 12 whose contents, like the rest of the draft Act, are unknown not only to the media but also to the Press Council itself. Does the body, meant to protect journalists, now want to punish them?

According to Khandker Anwarul Islam, the cabinet removed the fine amount and left it to the discretion of the Council. He added that the proposed draft empowers the Council to take cognisance, on its own, of any offence related to news, articles or cartoons committed by a newspaper or news agency that goes against the Council's code of conduct and also that compromises security, independence and sovereignty of the country. The Act will be applicable to print and digital media houses.

"Only preliminary approval has been given. It will be placed before the cabinet again for final approval," Islam said.

So here we go again: another law being prepared to throttle press freedom and the freedom of expression. Again, vague terms like "harming public harmony" and "state security" are being inserted into a law to be interpreted subjectively, and used recklessly, only to harass and intimidate journalists and punish dissenting voices.

Another law being prepared to throttle press freedom and the freedom of expression. VISUAL: STAR

There are now nine laws that directly or indirectly affect the media. An additional three are in draft form. The fourth, the Press Council Act, is in the offing. All in all, it makes for a total of 13 laws. Here is the list for a quick perusal: i) The Penal Code, 1860 (Section 499—Defamation); ii) The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 (Sections 99, 108, 144); iii) The Official Secrets Act, 1923; iv) The Contempt of Court Act, 2013; v) The Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration) Act, 1973; vi) The Press Council Act, 1974; vii) The Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) Act, 1974; viii) Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006; ix) The Digital Security Act, 2018; x) The (Draft) Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT Platforms, 2021; xi) The (Draft) Over-the-Top (OTT) Content-Based Service Providing and Operation Policy, 2021 (by ICT Division); and xii) The (Draft) Mass Media Employees (Services Conditions) Act, 2022.

It may not be wrong to surmise that, in today's Bangladesh, there are more laws to restrict journalism and free speech than there are laws to restrict terrorism, smuggling, money laundering, food adulteration, selling fake medicine, etc. Perfect prioritisation indeed!

The truth is, it is the journalist community that fought for and established the Press Council as they wanted a quasi-judicial body for strengthening press freedom, ensuring stricter adherence to professional ethics as well as addressing public grievances against shoddy journalism. The idea was that a body, headed by a senior judge, and a general body comprising members of the profession – editors, journalists, press workers, etc. – as well as renowned civil society members and parliamentarians would act as a protective shield against attempts to muzzle the media by upholding the principles of the Constitution, which clearly provides for press freedom subject to reasonable restrictions.

What was initiated by the media leaders to improve journalism has now been turned into a weapon to punish them.

The present controversy is not over the process – that started in 2005 – but over how the final draft was agreed upon, and whether journalists and editors who participated in the discussions were kept abreast of the latest versions as they evolved in the closed corridors of bureaucracy. What has happened – as it does in most cases of drafting a new law, especially one that curbs freedom of expression – is that discussions with stakeholders are held but the process of drafting the law is kept out of sight. There is no way of knowing whether the proposed law actually reflects what was discussed, as the draft is never shown. The Press Council claims that the draft was put up on the website of the information ministry on September 18, 2019, and is still visible on that site. This is not borne out by facts, as we searched for it at the time of writing this column.

The draft that the cabinet secretary referred to in his June 20 briefing was never shown to the stakeholders, especially the media bodies and journalist unions.

What is of serious concern for us is the secrecy with which the Press Council has dealt with the matter. The Sampadak Parishad approached the Council to get a copy of the draft that the cabinet deliberated on. Two meetings were held, and neither bore any fruit. The reply was that the draft sent by the Council was amended several times and the latest draft was not in its possession. When a request was made for the original draft, the reply was that the office did not have a copy. Whatever may be the shortcomings of our bureaucracy, losing a file or not finding a copy of the official draft of an Act is not one of them. (The Press Council's secretariat is headed by an officer of the level of additional secretary).

So why this secrecy? I have asked most of the current journalists and editors representing us in the Council; none of them have seen the draft which will be finalised in a cabinet meeting in the near future.

So who owns this draft? The chairman said that it was done by the previous committee. The present Council members have not been shown, and know very little of, what its provisions are. Stakeholders may have been consulted in the past in one form or another but were not shown the contents of the crucial draft now under consideration at the cabinet. So who is actually the author(s) of this draft? We're afraid it is not the representatives of the profession, but bureaucrats who never lose any opportunity to curb the free press.

We, in the media, most humbly, sincerely but emphatically urge the government not to finalise this draft without consulting the media bodies and journalist unions. We believe that the Press Council can be turned into an effective institution that can both guarantee the freedom of the press and serve public interest if an appropriate law is framed respecting our Constitution, the need for a free and independent media, freedom of speech, and upholding public interest.

Let us start this process by immediately sharing the draft Press Council Act.

Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.


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