World News Day: In defence of the messenger
Today, September 28, is observed globally as World News Day. This is not your usual "industry celebration" day, but one to highlight the importance of the institution of news media and the critical role that journalists play in gathering, presenting and interpreting facts, in unearthing the background of events, in exposing corruption and abuse of power, in holding the state and non-state actors accountable and—through all these processes—in augmenting democracy. It is a day to sensitise the wider society about the challenges that the journalist community faces in performing their duties. At the same time, it is also a day of reiteration of what constitutes ethical journalism, the hallmark of this noble profession. Coincidentally, the day is also marked as the International Day for Universal Access to Information (designated by Unesco).
Journalism as a trade has experienced massive transformation in this age of communication technology, augmented by digitalisation. The centuries-old paper-based news industry now faces a serious challenge from its online counterparts. The local newspaper industry, even in the Global North, faces threats from Facebook, Google, and other sites that "siphon off" the bulk of the revenue. While some in the industry have successfully adapted to the new reality, others have had to pull down the shutters. In addition, social media has emerged as an alternative source of information. Unfortunately, such systemic transformations have not necessarily been accompanied by the growth of responsible and credible journalism practices, promoting, celebrating and facilitating professional excellence. Therefore, the need for gathering, presenting, and interpreting trustworthy news and information has become ever more important. An essential prerequisite to attain such lofty goals is protecting the right of the journalists to perform their tasks freely and without fear.
One may recall that in the long-drawn struggle for democracy during Pakistani days, ethical journalism played a critical role. On the one hand, it challenged and exposed the authoritarian practices of those at the helm of the state; on the other, it conveyed the alternatives (such as that of the theory of two economies) offered by the opposition platforms that helped galvanise the people to rally, and protest, and demand change. Unfortunately, instead of further facilitating press freedom, successive governments in independent Bangladesh have adopted laws and administrative practices that act as barriers to that aspired principle. Included among the laws are provisions of the Special Powers Act, the Printing Press and Publication Act, the Information and Communication Technology Act, the sedition and defamation clauses of the Code of Criminal Procedure and, no less importantly, the Digital Security Act. Needless to say, these laws, particularly the DSA, have been applied to stem dissent on a number of occasions, and it is the journalist community who disproportionately bore the brunt.
The rampant application of the DSA severely restricts freedom of expression. Stating that 14 of the listed 19 offences under the law are non-bailable, the president of the Editors' Council noted, "Even if the law is not invoked, its sheer existence is enough to destroy journalistic initiatives." This may entail that an accused may have to spend months behind the bars before the trial process even begins. It also takes a toll on his/her reputation and social standing. The law also extends enormous power to the police to conduct searches on the premises of news establishments or seize computers and other equipment on "mere suspicion."
The defamation provision is another legal instrument to intimidate journalists. While in most countries, defamation is treated as a civil offence, under Bangladeshi law, it is a criminal offence. The law explicitly stipulates that the plaintiff has to be an aggrieved party, but in practice, defamation cases filed by individuals, who had no locus standi to file them, were admitted by the magistrate.
While the state retains a plethora of legal provisions to clamp down on the media if it so decides, thus far there is no law for the protection of the media from arbitrary intrusion and closure, and from arrest or questioning of journalists and the whistleblowers. This works as a great impediment to freedom of the press, and curtails journalists' ability to effectively pursue their vocation.
There have been occasions where journalists had to endure physical assault, illegal detention, and harassment from the state functionaries for performing their professional tasks. In mid-March 2020, Ariful Islam's reports on the irregularities of Kurigram district administration resulted in 30 to 40 people, including a senior official of civil administration, raiding his house in the middle of the night and detaining him. Arif was taken to the DC's office, where he was tortured blindfolded and threatened with an "encounter." He was then sent to jail for a year on charges of "possessing alcohol and marijuana" by an illegal mobile court sanctioned by the deputy commissioner.
The non-state actors also constitute a threat to journalists. On umpteen numbers of occasions, particularly during mass protests such as the road safety or quota movements, along with the protesters, reporters (carrying visible identity documents) were attacked and their equipment and vehicles vandalised by the supporters or members of the affiliated organisations of the ruling establishment, inflicting bodily harm on journalists. There is little evidence that effective actions were taken against the attackers for violating the law.
Likewise, reporters are also subjected to attacks and intimidation for publishing news and posting opinions on social media platforms, triggering displeasure of the powerful quarters. Golam Sarwar's case provides a classic example. This Chattogram-based journalist was involuntarily disappeared last November, and he reappeared after three days. While in illegal custody, Sarwar was asked to surrender his freedom to pursue his chosen vocation in exchange for "freedom" from harassment and torture. He claims that a politically influential family in Chattogram filed two defamation cases against him. In one instance, Tk 100 crore compensation was sought. So far, he failed to secure any redress from the law enforcement authorities.
The prevailing adverse regulatory framework, coupled with arbitrary administrative practices and high-handedness of the politically and financially powerful connected with the corridors of power, have created an environment of self-censorship. This has led to a situation in which it is not only the veracity of facts that concerns news editors and chief reporters, but also if the facts being dealt with are "DSA proof."
Over time, journalism has also been adversely affected by changes in the pattern of the ownership of media houses due to corporatisation, which are increasingly guided by overtly pecuniary, business, and other interests. Gone are the days when there was little meddling of owners with contents of the news and opinions expressed, and the editors enjoyed full discretion in running affairs of the media. However, over time, there has been gradual erosion in the authority of professional editors as the corporate houses increasingly began to interfere on such matters. Instead of letting the media perform its professed goal of serving the nation by disseminating credible facts and information, news outlets have become a handy tool for corporate houses to pursue their business and political interests, often resorting to publishing or running fake news to malign their business and other rivals. Such "predatory corporate control" has increasingly become stark in the Bangladeshi context, eroding the ethical foundation of media in general.
In this age of the "tsunami" of news portals that are built around "unedited, unverified, unsourced news and deliberate promotion of alternative facts," this aberration of the mainstream media is worrisome. Such a development not only dampens ethical journalism, but it also does a disservice to the people and weakens democracy. As the nation marches forward in the economic terrain, the need for accountability and transparency of various branches of the government and state institutions has become all the more important. Therefore, the onus lies on the state and other stakeholders to ensure that freedom of expression and ethical journalism can flourish—as real news, truth, objectivity, balance, and fairness do indeed matter.
C R Abrar is an academic, and a member of Nagorik, a platform of human rights and rule of law.