Journalism in the public interest can be dodgy business. Take the recent investigative report of Prothom Alo reporter Rozina Islam in where she documented the irregularities of Tk 350 crore purchase of medical equipment by the health ministry as an example. She surely didn't unearth the corruption by attending press briefs.
Rather she needed to cajole her sources in the ministry, worked tirelessly for hours to check facts inked in government documents, which she probably obtained through no legal means. Reporters of the secretariat beat are in fact known for having access to classified and secret government documents through grey channels. It's part of their job.
The result of such ventures is Rozina's front-page report of public interest which otherwise wouldn't have been possible had she not opted for sneaking a peek into secret government documents. There is obviously no end to navel-gazing about the ethics of publishing such news, and no dearth in groundswell of public opinion against it.
Investigative reporting requires time and effort and sometimes explorations into 'seemingly illegal' avenues to unearth public interest information that others prefer were kept hidden—for different reasons.
Leaked, stolen, or hacked information are thus often the familiar ways to obtain important stories. Consider the impact of the Pentagon Papers being leaked in 1971.
In that year, Daniel Ellsberg, a former US defense ministry official, had met a determined New York Times reporter named Neil Sheehan and gave him a secret government study documenting the US government's stance on the Vietnam War.
The NYT spent four months digesting and summarising the 7,000-page study. On June 13, 1971, without consulting or alerting the government, the paper started publishing a series of reports titled "Vietnam Archive: Pentagon Study Traces 3 Decades of Growing U.S. Involvement."
That heroic act of journalism and the legal ruling it forced the US Supreme Court to make, still stand today as the most powerful legal and moral weapon in the American media's battle against government secrecy.
Why reports of Rozina Islam matter?
Bangladesh has a dwindling press freedom as the country ranked 152nd among 180 countries in the latest World Press Freedom Index (WPFI) of 2021. A repressive law like Digital Security Act 2018 has already shrunk the space of proper journalism. According to a report of Reporters Sans Frontier (RSF), journalists in Bangladesh are finding it "increasingly hard to investigate and report sensitive stories."
Amidst such a scenario, Rozina was markedly different as she was known for her bold journalism. Winner of multiple awards, Rozina is revered among the journalistic community of Bangladesh for her reports on the gold crest forgery, top criminal Josef's hospital stay, and freedom fighters' certificate forgery by the top bureaucrats among many others.
Most of those ground-breaking reports, if not all, filed by Rozina were based on actual facts inked in the government documents. Instead of cooking stories out of thin air, she was known for her dogged persuasion of government facts and figures in the offices and corridors of the secretariat and penning stories backed by those.
These—facts and figures in government documents—are in fact the building blocks of solid investigative news reports across the world. Any report with an impact must have the credibility established through the presentation of information printed in government documents.
In the past few months, Rozina wrote (based on secret secretariat documents) at least five reports unearthing corruptions and malpractices prevailing in the health ministry of Bangladesh. The officials naturally took umbrage to those reports filed by her.
So much was the wrath the health ministry officials felt that they resorted to the 98-year-old colonial era Official Secrecy Act 1923 and accused Rozina of taking a snapshot of an important government document from the ministry. It is to be noted that in the 50-year history of Bangladesh, this Act was never used against a journalist before.
Diverse way of getting truths
Sometimes, getting the scoop on an important story means doing more than simple research and interviews; sometimes it requires a bigger and riskier sacrifice, like obtaining government documents through questionable channels. In some cases, journalists even resort to sting operations or undercover operations to obtain the truth.
In sting operation or undercover operation, a journalist may pretend to be someone else—a public official or an interested party—to overcome state control of access to official information or to areas cordoned off from public view.
In South Africa, during the years of Apartheid, some courageous journalists secretly and illegally recorded meetings of army officers of the white regime, or pretended to be white racists to attend private political events to get access to vital information about the war against the black liberation movement.
Even journalists have been stung by other journalists using subterfuge. During the early 2000s in Germany, the journalists of the tabloid Bild Zeitung were furious when investigative reporter Gunther Walraff, a specialist in cloak-and-dagger journalism, went undercover and joined their news staff just to expose the paper's questionable journalistic techniques.
There are various arguments against such journalistic practices but all those arguments fade away in front of the simple concept of 'public interest'—the journalistic justification for all such investigative reporting. And lots of knife-edge decisions have been taken when editors tell us, inevitably, that the "public has a right to know."
What Rozina did was just a way of obtaining the truth for the public interest. She mastered the technique of digging hidden information from secret and classified government documents to inform the public about government malpractices. And for that, she now faces the wrath of the establishment.