• Thursday, Aug 18, 2022
  • Last Update : 03:54 pm

World Press Freedom Day: The sound of silence

  • Published at 12:05 am May 3rd, 2017
  • Last updated at 08:47 am May 3rd, 2017
World Press Freedom Day: The sound of silence
Over the past few years, several government and constitutional bodies have become increasingly hostile to journalists, using tactics such as cutting off access to their buildings and circulating internal memos about severe punishment for employees who speak to journalists unsupervised. The offices of the Election Commission Secretariat (EC), Chittagong City Corporation (CCC), Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC), Bangladesh Bank (BB) and Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) have been found to severely restrict access to journalists recently, citing security reasons. According to an Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK) report, 117 journalists were assaulted last year by members of law enforcement agencies, political henchmen, and officials of both government and private organisations. Although the Fourth Estate plays a crucial role in upholding the accountability of the elected offices and has a responsibility to the public to inform them of work, the good and bad, journalists are increasingly viewed with suspicion and harassed when they try to do their jobs. This right to freedom of thought and expression is enshrined in the Constitution in Article 39, that also guarantees the freedom of press, and is aided by laws such as the Right to Information Act 2009 that allows citizens to demand information from public institutions. “Every citizen has a right to information from the Authority and the Authority shall on demand from a citizen be bound to provide information,” the Right to Information Act 2009 clearly states. It also imposes financial penalties under Section 6 (b) of up to Tk5,000 for officials who do not cooperate with the information seeker. In 2015, Chittagong City Corporation circulated an internal memo that was approved by the mayor saying: “Employees talking to the media unsupervised will be subject to strict actions taken against them.” The memo also stated that it was against the CCC's rules and regulations to speak to members of the media, although it is obligated to do so under the Right to Information Act. [caption id="attachment_61078" align="alignnone" width="800"]The photo shows the Chittagong City Corporation notice circulated at the office on November 12, 2015 Courtesy The photo shows the Chittagong City Corporation memo circulated at the office on November 12, 2015 Courtesy[/caption]  

The tactics used to prevent press freedom

The Election Commission on April 11 cut off journalists’ access to the building except for a media briefing room. The commission cites “security reasons” for this blockade with restricted or no access to the EC Secretariat. But press freedom is subtly attacked by these institutions. For instance, on April 17, a scuffle broke out in front of the EC office when journalists were barred by the guards at the gate and the situation escalated to a physical confrontation between the two groups. Office Assistant Md Masud physically assaulted reporters and Chief Election Commissioner KM Nurul Huda, four commissioners and EC Secretary Mohammad Abdullah were all present at their offices in the building, but no action was taken against the office assistant after the incident. “This is an attack on journalism,” opined columnist Sayad Abul Maksud, adding: “Journalists provide information to people and preventing them means interfering with people's right to information, which is illegal.” In response to the situation, Secretary to the EC Mohammad Abdullah told the Dhaka Tribune: “Journalists are only allowed to enter my office and the public relation officer's office.” “EC officials must understand that transparency is a good thing. We understand not everything can be disclosed for the sake of national security. We are not asking of them such things,” said Md Sazzad Hussain, vice-chairman of Reporters Forum for Election and Democracy. When asked about the increasing difficulty journalists face trying to enter the EC building, Information Commissioner Golam Rahman told the Dhaka Tribune: “If the EC needs security, then they are well within their rights to curb access. It is however illegal for them to withhold access to information.” Investigative journalist of Samakal, Shahadat Hossain Poros said press freedom is severely limited as journalists are usually unable to speak to officials to verify a story and hence the story loses its importance. He said: “Collecting daily news is sometimes a hassle as there is a ‘permission and invitation’ system that exists to prevent the availability of information or the collection of data for public interest. “Some things that are of public interest go unreported because of this, and people are deliberately deprived of information and news.” Executive Director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Dr Iftekharuzzaman said it is easy to hide corruption if there are no journalists around. “There is a common practice to shoot the messenger, that is to say journalists who expose corruption get prosecuted instead of the officials guilty of the corruption. This system has to change as corrupt individuals are the enemy of institutions. “It is a constitutional responsibility of these government bodies to create a working environment for journalists. The situation at the EC is unacceptable where they have used ‘security measure’ to ban the media from the building.” After the infamous Bangladesh Bank cyber heist last year, the new Governor of the bank, Fazle Kabir, restricted access to journalists within the building. Similarly, this practice has been going on at the Anti-Corruption Commission since 2012 when they imposed an unofficial ban on journalists entering the building on June 28. In 2013, they restricted journalists from entering the building before 3pm. Information Minister Hasanul Haque Inu gave a measured response to the questions posed by the Dhaka Tribune, saying: “Institutions have a right to secure their premises. They should however have a spokesperson who can give journalists the information. If they are denied that information, then they can complain to the information commissioner and appropriate actions will be taken.” In 2013, when a patient was assaulted by a DMCH doctor, interns at the hospital assaulted journalists when they tried to report the news. Journalists eventually got banned by the hospital authorities from entering the hospital building. The Dhaka Tribune reached out to both the ACC and Bangladesh Bank for comments but they did not respond.