Bangladesh ranked the worst position in any country in South Asia. Even it’s worse than war-ravaged Afghanistan, which has been placed at 122, Pakistan (145), India (142), Sri Lanka (127), Nepal 112, Bhutan (67), and Maldives (79), writes Mohammad Kepayet for South Asia Monitor
The theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day on May 3 was ‘Journalism Without Fear or Favour.’ It calls for awareness on specific issues about the safety of journalists, their independence from political or commercial influence. Do Bangladeshi media workers have that right? Are they able to express their views in a free voice? Are they able to post their comments on social media?
Now the question is who has access to freedom in media? Is it accessed by the media house? Journalist? Or the media owner? According to UNESCO, "the freedom must be for a news story and the journalist." But if you look at ground reality in Bangladesh all freedom is kept into the pocket of the owner and advertisers. Journalists are just 'servants of order'. Most of the media mughals in Bangladesh are ruling party grandees and pro-government businesspersons.
The most alarming thing was the disappearance of Shafiqul Islam Kajol, who was a Dhaka-based photojournalist and editor of the Dainik Pakkhakal newspaper. The day before he disappeared, a ruling party MP Saifuzzaman Shikhor filed a lawsuit against him under the Digital Security Act. Two other journalists, Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, the editor of the daily Manab Zamin, and one of his reporters, are also accused in the same case. After 53 days of Kajol’s disappearing, Bangladesh border officials arrested him in the no man’s land between Bangladesh and India. Now he is under trial under a false suit. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) called upon the Bangladeshi authorities to free Kajol immediately.
RSF recently released its World Press Freedom Index 2020. Their report shows that the coming decade will be decisive for the future of journalism. This Index, which evaluates the situation for journalists each year in 180 countries and territories, suggests that the next ten years will be crucial for press freedom.
According to the RSF report, Bangladesh is placed 151 out of the 180 countries. Bangladesh ranked the worst position in any country in South Asia. Even it’s worse than war-ravaged Afghanistan, which has been placed at 122, Pakistan (145), India (142), Sri Lanka (127), Nepal 112, Bhutan (67), and Maldives (79).
Bangladesh has been ranking low in the index for the past five years. In 2019, Bangladesh ranked 150; in 2018 it was 146; in 2016 it was 144.
About Bangladesh, RSF said journalists in this South Asian country have been collateral victims of the tougher methods adopted by the ruling party and its leader. Ten journalists were attacked and badly beaten by supporters of the ruling party Awami League and its student wing the Chhatra League while covering municipal elections in Dhaka in early 2020. Moreover, the index that was released earlier this week, radical Islamist militants harass and even murder journalists and bloggers who dare to defend an overly secular vision of society in Bangladesh.
Bangladeshi legal aid and human rights organization Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK) said recently a total of 51 journalists were harassed at various levels from January to March 2020. At the official press briefing on COVID-19, the opportunity for journalists to ask questions has been canceled, because a journalist raised a question about two different kinds of commentary of two government authorities.
According to Amnesty International, most media houses in Bangladesh is controlled by the owner and has political influence. There are a lot of media houses in Bangladesh, but there is no scope of diverse opinions. This is the main obstacle in the way of free journalism in Bangladesh, the rights body said.
Berlin-based Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) said that journalists were attacked while covering news of corruption by some people's representatives and political leaders in the ongoing relief distribution in the COVID-19 crisis. Such incidents of harassment and torture of journalists have been reported from various parts of the country. Besides, by the Digital Security Act, the government has tried to keep surveillance on journalists, and also repress and muffle independent voices in social media and traditional mass media. According to the TIB, these practices should be stopped immediately.
New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has said at least eight journalists have been attacked by police and political activists in Bangladesh amid the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic. At least seven people have been charged under various laws, and two have been remanded in custody.
Bangladesh has had its examples of independent journalism. Journalists and journalism still have people's trust and enjoys confidence. Despite the ineffectiveness of democratic institutions in the country, media has survived because it raises the voices of truth. But journalists are feeling the heat. They fear harassment, torture, false suits, and even risks to life.
(The writer is a journalist and South Asian geopolitical analyst. The views expressed are personal and not necessarily shared by editors of South Asia Monitor)