Amartya Sen claims that "no democracy with a free press has ever had major famines." This refers to the fact that ensuring freedom of speech and press makes democratic practices easier. Given this reality, Article 39 (1) of the Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees 'freedom of expression, and press' as fundamental rights for all people, in accordance with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The question is, however, how far press freedom is protected in the country.
Article 39 (2) of the Constitution of Bangladesh mentions some restrictions on freedom of speech and expression. And apart from the restrictions, some existing laws impede freedom of expression and the press in Bangladesh. The Digital Security Act (DSA) of 2018, as well as regulations proposed by the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) for digital, social media, and over-the-top (OTT) platforms, has recently fueled the discussion of these issues in contemporary Bangladesh. Despite the fact that there are few provisions in place to protect against digital scams, money laundering, terrorism, and cyber bullying, the general public in Bangladesh has begun to consider the use of such laws against media outlets. Forty-five international organizations have slammed the government's recent move to regulate social media and OTT platforms, calling it a "risky step toward a surveillance-based society."
The country has already dropped one position in Reporters Without Borders' global press freedom index. Bangladesh has been ranked 152nd out of 180 countries this year. The Digital Security Act has already created a hostile image and an alarming situation for freedom of expression and the press. According to a study initiated by the Center for Governance Studies, approximately 842 people have been detained in the last two years, with 207 journalists prosecuted under the act. Journalist leaders and editors have also urged the government on several occasions to review a number of sections of the act that they see as a threat to freedom of expression and the press, but their efforts have been in vain.
There is no denying that the act was enacted with the best of intentions on the part of the government. The goal was to put an end to unacceptable defamation and humiliation, to prevent violent extremism, to combat online scams and false allegations in the form of viral videos, and so on. However, due to a number of non-bailable and contentious sections, as well as implementations that violate freedom of expression and press, such issues have received little attention.
The issue is that it is not only the government's responsibility to protect press freedom, but also the media's. However, the mushrooming growth of media outlets, despite a lack of facilities for journalists and media personnel, has exacerbated the problem. Because of the lack of job security, the profession does not attract the high-quality graduates produced by the 16 public-private institutions that completed their five-year degree program, which included media ethics and laws. In contrast, a growing number of people (sometimes with no prior knowledge of journalism) have begun their careers in the (honorable) profession.
This is the only profession that does not require any entrance examinations or orientation, such as the Bar Council or BMDC. In reality, most media outlets are not interested in providing training (or even guidance) to their employers in search of 'benefits.' There are numerous examples of people from various professions, such as hawkers and the unemployed, who began their careers as 'journalists' despite having no media literacy, which is concerning in today's world. Real journalists (with official affiliation) in rural areas have begun to notice the large number of online journalists who lack affiliation, wages, and journalism knowledge. As a result, those phony (unknown) journalists have been abusing the power of the media by having a conflict of interest in another profession, such as politician, businessman, teacher, and so on. As a result, rather than honoring journalists, rural people fear them, posing a real challenge for true heroes.
It is very easy in the digital world to buy a domain and launch an online media outlet without proper manpower, wages, or even registration from any government authority. As a result, these websites (which we do not consider to be news outlets) compete for viral issues with false, politically motivated issues for managing money from online advertisements. Some of those websites have violated several laws, including copyright, privacy, and journalistic ethics.
It is true that the status of press freedom is under threat in a number of countries around the world. Bangladesh, on the other hand, is dealing with it in a unique way. A number of media organizations have closed down, while the number of media outlets is increasing on a daily basis. However, this does not indicate the state of press freedom in Bangladesh. Some professional journalists have resigned from their jobs, and a few have relocated outside of the country.
We appreciate the government's ideal and comprehensive efforts, as well as those of media owners, advertisers, and other stakeholders, to maintain a media-friendly environment and also to ensure press freedom in Bangladesh. If the government allows a large number of media outlets, strict laws should be enacted to ensure journalists' job security. Meanwhile, the government should set up an entrance examination for newcomers to the profession; otherwise, it is expected that, as a result of a number of journalistic activities, the general people will misinterpret the true spirit of the profession. Meanwhile, the government should avoid enacting any contentious legislation without first consulting with relevant stakeholders.
Dr. Pradip Kumar Panday is a Professor at the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Rajshahi. He is also the Director of the Center for Social Innovation and Sustainability (CSIS) in Social Science Faculty.
Mamun Abdul Kaioum is Assistant Professor of the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Rajshahi.
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