The number of media outlets in the country has increased over the past decade, but collusion between political entities and businesses and the Digital Security Act have created major obstacles in the development of an independent and professional media in the country, said Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).
The establishment of media outlets to protect corporate interests and the system to provide approval to them on political considerations, and weak institutional and financial structures of media organisations, have created new examples of professional and livelihood risks for journalists, said TIB in a statement on Sunday.
"The professional and economic risks to the media and journalists have become more pronounced during the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to the closure of many media outlets, many journalists have been fired or forced to change their profession. Therefore, the TIB calls for the immediate implementation of the constitutional obligation of ensuring the media's freedom and free flow of information and the implementation of international commitments to ensure a conducive environment for independent and professional media," said the organisation in the statement issued on the occasion of World Press Freedom Day being observed today.
TIB Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman said, "Article 39 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of Bangladesh guarantees freedom of thought and conscience as well as freedom of speech and expression of every citizen and freedom of the press. But in the face of various pressures and restrictions, both open and hidden, this constitutional right has been transformed into merely a covered document. And the failure to ensure the media's freedom and the protection of journalists, has undermined the democratic foundations of the state as a whole, as well as the people's right to free and unbiased information."
He said, "Most media outlets are owned by businessmen. Due to the direct and indirect political involvement of this business community, 'media capture' has now gained an institutional basis. As a result, professional journalists are often forced to hide or publish news for their own protection and fail to ensure professional accountability. This has not only hampered the development of a free media, but has also exposed the crisis of credibility of the media."
Bangladesh ranks 152nd out of 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index, and 132nd out of 161 countries in the Global Expression Report. These rankings prove the fragile state of the country's media. In particular, over the past decade, both of these indicators point to Bangladesh's steady decline or the severity of its deteriorating situation, said the TIB executive director.
Dr Iftekharuzzaman said, "In order to ensure the free flow of information, the theme declared by the United Nations on this year's World Press Freedom Day is – 'Information as a Public Good.' But a quarter of the government's attitude regarding the Right To Information Act is that information is the government's property, the government will control it and publish as much information as it wants, which is curtailing the people's right to know and is hindering the development of a free media."
In particular, the Covid-19 pandemic has narrowed the accessibility of information to journalists and created obstacles in field-level data collection, investigative journalism, and the opportunity to publish sensitive reports, said Dr Iftekharuzzaman.
"In recent years, incidents of filing cases under the Digital Security Act against journalists, writers, and cartoonists for publishing news or information, torturing them, and the death of captive author Mushtaq Ahmed, have violated the constitutional and legal commitment to independent journalism and the free flow of information," said the TIB executive director.
"Free journalism could work like an effective vaccine in controlling rumors and misinformation by creating awareness among the people like the vaccine works against Covid-19," he said.
Saying that the freedom of the media and the right to free information are directly relevant to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 16, especially Target 10, Dr Iftekharuzzaman said, "An open and participatory policy framework is important for the freedom of the media, which effectively contributes to achieving the SDGs by ensuring access to information, freedom of expression, and the safety of journalists."
"Therefore, it is necessary to break the net of nefarious collusion between businesses and political entities and to create a conducive environment for the establishment of a free media. Knowledge of the media and disclosure of information needs to be enhanced so that the freedom of the media, an important means of obtaining information as the 'public's good,' is protected," he added.