The myth and reality of press freedom in Bangladesh

May 22, 2012


A.N.M. Nurul Haque
More than three months after the brutal murder of the journalist couple Sagar and Runi, no visible progress has either been made or reported about identifying the killers, leave alone their trial. The issue continues to generate an enormous amount of anxiety, dismay and heaps up feelings of anger not only among the media professionals but also all other segments in society.
It is painfully funny that the Detective Branch of police after two months of investigation admitted failure to find any clue and the case was handed over to RAB officials who wanted the visceral report. Accordingly under court order the couple’s dead bodies were exhumed. The government’s failure to identify and arrest the killers of journalist couple is also loaded with far-reaching implications on security of all journalists in Bangladesh.
Journalists will march towards the prime minister’s office on June 26 to press home their demands including the arrest of killers of Sagar and Runi. Other demands include ensuring safety of journalists and providing a safe environment for performing their duties, stopping oppression on newsmen and investigation of earlier killings of journalists.
On May 15, newspapers published editorials on the unsolved murder case of the journalist couple while several electronic media houses aired special news on the issue. Not that the journalists take to the streets frequently to seek justice, but going by the number of journalist’s deaths that have remained unresolved in recent years, there was little choice left to them.
According to media reports, at least 288 journalists became victims in 154 incidents in Bangladesh up to December 31, 2011. Of them, 101 suffered repression for publishing reports while 110 were assaulted while covering news events and 47 came under attack by law enforcers. At least 17 journalists were murdered in Bangladesh in between 1995 and 2011. Sadly, none of these murders have been truly solved.
This is one side of the press freedom. The other side is, Bangladesh Chhatra League leaders have beaten up more than 100 journalists, mostly university correspondents of the national dailies, since their party came to power three years ago, just because these journalists reported involvement of BCL activists in criminal activities which have vitiated academic atmosphere in many educational institutions across the country.
Unidentified assailants hacked the right arm of a journalist on Govt. Edward College campus, Pabna on May 19, allegedly for reporting an obscene dance performance on the campus. The attack on the newsman came only four days after Abdullah Al Mamun, zonal correspondent of the daily Kaler Kantho, was beaten up in public in Bera upazila of Pabna by a nephew of a state minister for publishing a report on the alleged corruption by the minister’s relatives in a tender manipulation case.
Apart from these, two journalists died in the city last week, due to reckless driving and slack law enforcement. Admittedly, a look into these incidents gives a clear picture of the environment in which the media apparatus operates in Bangladesh.
The journalists have gained public confidence and support as they always stand by the oppressed and take bold stand to protect the public interest, facing all these odds. Naturally the journalists become the eyesore of people with unholy ambitions for running after their misdeeds and bringing them to light. As the journalists cannot afford to ignore the ethics of their profession, the death threats from such people often hangs on their heads like the sword of Damocles.
The unique instance set by Ahmed Akbar Sobhan, the Chairman of the Bashundhara Group, who has announced a donation of Tk 2.4 million for the family members of some journalists who were victims of accidents and orphaned baby son of the slain journalist couple Sagar and Runi, will certainly provide some sort of solace to the journalist community, that still there are some noble-hearted persons to stand by them in distress.
Journalist community leaders and a noted academic with one voice called for others to emulate the instance as Bashundhara Group, country’s leading business conglomerate, which gave Tk 1.5 million in humanitarian assistance to Megh, the orphaned son of slain journalist couple Sagar and Runi, and three other victim families on May 19 .
Bangladesh has been ranked 129th among 179 countries in the global press freedom index 2011, by a Paris-based global media watchdog — Reporters Without Borders. The media in Bangladesh is claimed to be free in the absence of censorship or harsh laws to throttle free expression. This is myth and not the whole reality. The issue that needs to be highlighted once again is that, the media in Bangladesh is confined under the claws of the high-ups of the ruling alliance, as any law to resist their repression is absent.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) recently expressed grave concern over such state of affairs of the journalists in Bangladesh. The IFJ is the world’s largest organisation of media professionals representing more than 600,000 journalists in 131 countries. It has voiced the agony in its recent reports that journalists in Bangladesh continue to be subjected to threats and harassment.
The World Development Indicators of the World Bank reveal that Bangladesh between the period of 1992 and 2011, ranks 11th in the Impunity Index Rating regarding unsolved murders of journalists. Iraq tops the list while Sri Lanka secures the fourth position followed by Pakistan in the 10th and India occupying the 13th position. According to the report 75% of the journalists who have been killed so far in Bangladesh were targeted for reporting crime incidents while the rest for covering corruption, politics and violation of human rights.
Justice Muhammad Habibur Rahman, former Chief Justice and Chief Adviser of a caretaker government, said that the country’s journalists were now divided into two factions and that social and political rascals were deriving clear advantage from such a divide. He said this on May 19 while addressing a seminar on “Freedom of Press: In the Context of Bangladesh” organised by Journalism Training and Research Initiative on the eve of World Press Freedom Day 2012.
“Due to lack of security, the door for free journalism is getting closed. In such a situation, journalists will have to look after their own interests”, he said. “At least for the sake of getting justice, the two unions of journalists will have to be united, and I want to live with this hope,” he added.
An independent and responsible media with full press freedom is indeed essential for a nation, as it provides guarantee against misrule, plundering of public wealth and violation of human rights. The media of Bangladesh has been playing a very vital role in its mission of unearthing all falsehoods. It is the media that has kept our hopes alive by bringing to light the tales of torture, denial and violation of human rights.
The writer is a columnist of Daily Sun.
The Daily Sun, 22 May 2012 

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