Shadow across free media: Why? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 25, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

Shadow across free media: Why?

Shadow across free media: Why?

SOMETHING is wrong with both the means and the end. In Gandhi's eye, when the means is bad the end cannot be good. Fundamentally, it is the intent or motive that is pivotal to either adding to or unmaking a settled fact.

The case in point is the government's apparent move to restore DCs' authority to cancel declaration of newspapers. This was embodied in the 1973 Press and Publications Act but subsequently revoked by Justice Shahabuddin, head of the interim caretaker government in 1991.

A fundamental fetter is going to be placed on free press by doing away with a priceless dividend from the harvest of 1990 anti-autocracy movement. This forward-looking step met one of the two demands of the journalist community at that time. The other one centred on treating libel and defamation not as a criminal but civil offence. This was to avert arrest of the accused journalist under CrPC, the matter being preferably left to a suitably empowered Press Council to hear the complaint and adjudicate it. Rather than considering such a proposal sympathetically, which would have been a value addition to journalists' working environment, what was once unfettered as a sign of progress is being set back.

Apart from the material negative change being visualised, the circuitous manner in which the government is going about revoking Shahabuddin's gift clearly lacks transparency in dealing with media -- dubbed as the fourth estate in a Republic.

We are baffled by the information minister's apparent lack of specific knowledge about the ongoing moves in his own ministry. A ministerial committee formed to address the matter at its first meeting in February proposed a draft amendment under the title The Printing Presses and Publications (Declaration and Registration) Act 2014 to be enacted and applied against any media's 'anti-state role' or its 'hurting religious sentiments.' In the event, the DC would cancel the paper's or the media's declaration. In April, the committee held its second meeting and built on the outcome of the first one. The draft altered 'anti-state role and hurting religious sentiments' by rephrasing the offences as being 'anti-state or anti-religion.' But the cancellation will be ordered into effect by the information ministry or a court. The accused newspaper authority, however, will have right to defense. Within sixty days after the orders are passed the aggrieved party could file an appeal with the press appeal board.

The interpretation of what is anti-state or anti-religion is too serious a matter to be left to the judgment of officials. The minister has hinted that it will require a political decision. In any case, cancellation of declaration has always been a matter of political decision, which hasn't been quite above reproach, we have to say. Now vesting the authority in the DCs at the fundamental level makes the media all the more vulnerable to a draconian mindset.

If the government goes ahead with the move we would think that the judicious advice of the parliamentary standing committee on information ministry to refrain from it has been unceremoniously rejected.

Also interestingly, successive governments since 1991 did not feel the necessity for restoring the provision but this government is apparently keen on it presumably because it has become a control freak perhaps for reasons not difficult to comprehend.   

It is free and fiercely independent media in Bangladesh that has so far won us international acclaim. Even our higher courts have often intervened in matters of public interest taking suo motto cognisance of newspaper reports.

Are we to believe that after the higher judiciary (impeachment authority being vested in the parliament) it is now the journalists on whom the heat is being turned?

We are not being oblivious of some international media watch bodies making critical assessment about threats to life and limbs that our media persons get to face from time to time (Sagar-Runi murder case is the height of it). But the overall appraisal has been one of appreciation for Bangladesh media. The people keep faith with the media that is also catching up with the best in the wider media world.

Why are the joy and glory, reflecting positively on the government as well, being taken away from us? If these really are robbed-off the media, the country's image will lose in credibility and goodwill.

The signs and symptoms smack of inclement weather for the media. There are rumblings of menacing footsteps of an impending storm on freedom of press. Social Welfare Minister Syed Mohsin Ali, while referring to Narayanganj seven murder case, ranted: “You will show whatever you wish and by repeatedly doing so, you create a sentiment inciting the public ... hence, such a law is going to be enacted as will divest you of your freedom.”

This sounds like an informed climactic comment that didn't come from the blue. The aggressive tone, texture and temper of some ministers' comments about the media have been known for sometime. The usual remarks are that the media have been overplaying their hands. For instance, Communication Minister Obaidul Quader could say that some newspapers carried three-year old pictures to portray the present condition of highways. Could the present day photographs have lied?

The bottom line is as Arthur Miller had written in The Observer, 1961: “A good newspaper is a nation talking to itself.”

The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.

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