Press Freedoms and Journalism: Status analysis

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Offline Shamim Ansary

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Press Freedoms and Journalism: Status analysis
« on: May 24, 2010, 05:50:19 PM »
Press Freedoms and Journalism: Status analysis

The freedom of press is a fundamental right to every citizen of Bangladesh. The fundamental rights being guaranteed by the fundamental law of the land with some restrictions, no organ of the state, executive, legislature of judicial can act in contravention of such rights. Any Act which is repugnant to such rights must be void. The liberty of the press is essential to the nature of Free State. Every free man has an undoubted right to lie what sentiments he pleads before the public, to forbid this is to destroy the freedom of the press. But this freedom is being hindered due to the scope of use of the word government and other employed terms bearing manifold interpretation in the related laws. The authorities empowered to implement the related laws taking the opportunity of diverging interpretation of the terms and the use of the word 'Govt.' is prone to act for Wrongful gain and sometimes for malicious purpose. Article 7 of our constitution ensures that all powers of the Republic belong to the people. In our country democratic Government is exercising powers through the persons elected by the people and such a government claims their transparency and accountability. Thus by such constitutional provisions every citizen of the country has the right to know about every step taken by the Government in details for transparency and accountability of the activities of the persons in the government. So to ensure the freedom of press it is absolutely necessary to avoid the scope of such interpretation by employment for terms bearing single interpretation for which it has been employed. It is also necessary that there should be an Act in clean terms and words providing the right of the citizen to information without any scope to affect the security of the state and friendly relations with foreign countries. It is we known that much has been said and worked out about freedom of press and right to information yet more activities need to be performed to achieve the goal. In the meantime our law commission has submitted draft law to the Government on the subject, but the same has not yet been enacted as law. so attempt should be taken for enactment of the draft law and necessary amendment/ repeal of the words and phrases of the present law in force which are inconsistent with the draft and creating hindrance to carry on the activities of press without apprehension and derogating the reputation of the persons related to press for creating environment of a democratic and social state.

Bangladesh is one of the most dangerous and violent countries in South Asia for journalists. The risks are on the increase day by day with harassment, torture, and arrest and death threats for news reports and opinions which expose the truth. Local journalists say they are increasingly under threat for reporting on political violence, graft, and organized crime, but that the main cause of brutality against the press in Bangladesh is pervasive corruption. The professional rights and freedom of journalists are being curbed frequently now either by laws or by other restraints imposed by the government. Six journalists were killed from May 2004 to April 2005 and 675 received death threats, 421 tortured, 143 harassed in 290 incidents of press bashing, 22 were arrested while another 95 were threatened and 85 injured. In addition, cases were filed against 105 journalists despite these risks and challenges, more and more qualified and competent youths are joining the profession of journalism, with the conviction that journalism is a noble profession. Simultaneously, big companies in the country are investing large some of money in media sector. Within the last four years the print media has been enormously upgraded in line with the growing demand of the readers. Electronic media are also flourishing in the country. Besides the state-owned television, three private televisions are in the air now. Another four companies are trying to get licenses to install private TV stations. In another move to restrict the freedom of the press, the High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh on 22 March 2005 convicted seven journalists on the charge of contempt of court for exposing the allegedly fake qualifications of a High Court judge. Samaresh Baiddya, reporter and columnist of the Bengali daily Bhorer Kagaj was fined and sentenced to two months' rigorous imprisonment, and five others fined. They are two editors of national dailies, two publishers and two reporters. The newspapers have stood by the accuracy of the articles and plan to appeal their convictions in the Supreme Court. In the context of repressive laws on contempt of court and defamation, the Right to Information becomes a crucial legal instrument. The Right to Information has been voiced over several decades, but the state machinery has taken its own time to respond. The Law Commission had produced a Working Paper on the Proposed Right to Information Act in 2002 and circulated that paper to some selected organization in 2003. An analysis of the proposed Act should be preceded by comparable contents of right to information as found in relevant international instruments ratified by Bangladesh. According to Dr. Asif Nazrul, Associate Professor, Department of Law, University of Dhaka, the Draft Law may be welcomed with caution as a positive initiative to advance freedom of expression and information in Bangladesh. But, unless it supersedes existing secrecy legislation, provides for extensive education and training, protects the whistleblowers, establish independence of the relevant appeals tribunals and,above all, unless an enabling political culture developed, the Act could contribute little to promote right to freedom of information.

According to the statistics there are 7750 journalists working in different newspapers and news agencies in Bangladesh. Among them 2800 are full-time journalists. Working conditions of journalists continue to be abysmal. Although the sixth Wage Board Award was announced this year , most of the newspapers are still now reluctant to implement it. Despite the Newspaper Employees (Condition and Services) Act, 1974 formulated, professional journalists are working without wages and in extremely adverse conditions. The division in the main journalists’ union weakened the struggle against the irregularities. Government advertisement policies are also hindering the development of the newspaper industry. Newspapers which publish news about corruption or misdeeds of the government, find themselves without advertisements, thus making it difficult to continue publication. In January 2005, during the debate on the Sixth wage Board, owners of the newspaper industry said that their main concern was the justification for a new board when 98 percent newspapers are unable to pay the earlier announced awards, especially by the Fifth Wage Board. They said “In the era of free market economy the government has no right to impose the pay scale of a particular industry. This will amount to discrimination and interference with press freedom and independence of media institutions.” On the other hand, the unions of journalists and workers in their joint statement said such a statement showed disrespect for the existing laws. They criticized the owners of the government media-list newspapers; saying only 10 out of 500 newspapers have implemented the wage board award. They have been taking all sorts of advantages from the government, but have not implemented the wage board award. Free flow of information remains important because that ensures people's right to know. Unless you know the facts, unless you are aware what is happening in the society, you can not express properly what you want to say. In this context, access to information is very important to guarantee freedom of press. But in our country such access to information is restricted by the Official secrets Act. During the British rule the official secrets act was promulgated to hide misdeeds of the colonial rulers. Unfortunately, this law is in force until today in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka. It is not unique in South Asian countries only. Such laws are there in many other countries to obstruct journalists to get information. The International Federation of Journalists conducted a survey that revealed that bureaucrats in almost all countries try to hide facts. But the code of ethics of journalism states that “it is the duty of the press to carry information on what goes in the society and uncover and disclose matter which ought to be subjected to criticism. In a fundamental sense information in the hands of the government belongs to the public having been collected through use of taxpayers money but under cover of official secrets act the officials always hide the truth and the normal flow of information is obstructed.

According to the Ministry of Information, 2219 newspapers and periodicals, including 378 national and regional dailies, are being published in the country. Additionally, Five news agencies including Bengali News service Bangladesh Sangbad Sangtha (BSS), a state-owned national news agency, and the privately owned national news agency- the United News of Bangladesh (UNB), Annandha Bangla Sangbad (ABS) National News Bangladesh (NNB) and BD News24 are operating in the country. At present, Bangladesh also has a state-owned television and three satellite television stations in the private sector. The electronic media that has much more influence than that of the print media is not fully free in our country until now. The private satellite channels enjoy or exercise some amount of freedom in telecasting news. I must admit that sometimes their presentation of news is better that that of the print media. But hardly 10 to 15 per cent of the viewers can see the Channel TV because of the technical limitations. But unfortunately, the state owned electronic media both radio and television that cover the whole country are spoon-fed. How influential the television that cover the whole country are spoon-fed. How influential the television can be was felt when ETV was freely telecasting the domestic news. The channel had been closed due to legal fault and finally has come out with new dimension. The sky is now open. There has been cultural invasion through channel television from other countries. There are accusations that the impact of such cultural invasion by media is becoming disastrous for our society. So here again many people are advocating for reasonable restrictions to stop moral degradation in our society. Even in American society this issue is debated seriously especially after some cases of shooting is schools by teenagers who are inspired by violent scenes in television. The media in Bangladesh face restrictive laws enacted between 1876 and 1991 which restrain freedom of expression. These laws control private media, news agencies, radio, television, theatre, audio-video materials, VCR rental and video copying, cinema, advertising, and telecommunication. The disunity among of journalists and journalists unions has been continuing to the harm of the country and the community has main reason for repression of journalists. Recognizing the need for unity and to organize, journalists have formed associations to press for their rights. There are 25 journalists’ related organizations in Dhaka, and several national networks.

Following the bomb blast that led to the tragic death of Shaikh Belaluddin, bureau chief of Daily Sangram on February 11, journalists overcoming narrow political allegiances came together. Editors, leaders of the journalists unions and senior journalists at a meeting on February 12 decided to take a strong stand to ensure the safety and security of media persons across the country. This unity is indeed heartening, and likely to present a cohesive challenge to the repression of journalists and attacks on press freedom.

Freedom of press, right to know, freedom of speech and access to information are the hallmark of an undiluted democracy. Media's freedom, democracy and good governance are as inseparable as the human rights sere. So a free media is essential for building a society with moral, ethical and democratic values that impact our society and culture largely. The information, in general, and the media, in particular, can also be decisive by tipping the social and political balance on issues of authoritarianism and democracy, autocracy and theocracy, development and parasitic consumption, war and peace, conflict prevention, conflict resolution and reconciliation in post conflict situation. If the Media can function freely in a democratic atmosphere, the society is benefited and civilization gets a boost from such freedoms. Bangladesh Journalists rights form – BJRF working to create greater unity healthy atmosphere in the field of journalism of Bangladesh.

Written by Mr. Ataur Rahman
General Secretary
Bangladesh Journalists rights' Forum-BJRF
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