Declining media freedom hurts democracy, society

Published: 00:00, May 04,2021


AMID continued legal harassment against journalists, with a few journalists are reeling behind bars, the World Press Freedom Day was observed in Bangladesh on Monday.  In April, a total of 24 cases were filed against journalists under different laws, of which five were filed under the draconian Digital Security Act 2018. In 2020, a UK based organisation, Article 19, has recorded 631 incidents of attacks on journalists and human rights defenders in Bangladesh. In the past 12 years, as Odhikar reported, a total of 16 journalists were reportedly killed, 1,100 injured, 386 threatened while cases were filed against 318 journalists. The political party in power for three consecutive terms has not made any effort to improve the situation. Instead, in majority of the cases, the plaintiffs are directly or indirectly involved with the ruling quarters. In one of the recent cases, a 64-year-old journalist from Khulna was sent to jail on April 21 when the Khulna City Corporation mayor, also the president of Khulna unit of Awami League, legally accused him of defamation. Undoubtedly, legal harassment of journalists has become commonplace and created an atmosphere of fear in which public interest journalism is becoming a risky affair. 

Legal harassment is not the only hindrance to the freedom of press in Bangladesh. The approval of media outlets on political consideration has tightened the partisan control over the press to the extent that dominant trend in journalism has become more about serving the interest of the ruling quarter and the corporate sector. The declining labour standard in the media industry and constant violation of labour law have also influenced the growth of journalism as a profession in Bangladesh. In 2020, as Article 19 reports, as many as 1,600 journalists lost their jobs due to closures and loss of income of media outlets. Journalists have experienced significant pay-cut, suspensions of festival bonuses and sudden terminations during the pandemic and such decisions were taken unliterary by the management of the media outlets. Since the associations of journalists are deeply politicised and co-opted by the ruling party, they play little to no role in safeguarding the rights of journalists. Therefore, it is not surprising that legal harassment or labour rights violation in the industry continues to remain unaddressed, creating an atmosphere of fear and insecurity for journalists. 

To reclaim information as public good, the government must ensure unhindered production and distribution of good journalism. In what follows, the government must immediately stop the use of the Digital Security Act to muzzle journalistic work and ensure judicious investigation of all cases of violence against journalists. Journalist community at large must also work against the growing journalistic trend that rather works as the mouthpiece of the ruling party, than speaks for their own rights and work towards reclaiming the historic tradition of public interest journalism. The conscientious sections of society need to recognise that democratisation of society is a necessary precondition to media freedom and, therefore, they must continue to mobilise towards that goal.

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