Thursday, October 4, 2007

Freedom of press in South Asia

Freedom of press in South Asia

Ripan Kumar Biswas, USA
October 04 2007
Source: News From Bangladesh

To facilitate free movement within the region for professional tasks, South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) foreign ministers took a defining step on April 2, 2007 in New Delhi, India to promote greater connectivity in South Asia by deciding to grant special stickers to 50 journalists from each member country that will enable them to move freely across the region—a praiseworthy step.

Taking note of the many problems of media and media-persons in South Asia face in the pursuit of truth and in fulfilling the demands of the professional tasks, in particular as a result of legal, social and political constraints on, and a growing pattern of governments' intolerance of criticism, the freedom of press and the right to know continue their well-deserved reputation as one of most unsafe places in the world for journalists to work.

Governments continue the crack down on democratic rights and press freedom in the name of tackling situation. And corrupt officials, insurgents, fundamentalists of all religions and gangsters with their own violent methods of silencing truth tellers, continue with impunity.

This was his second attempt to curb the media in this year while Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PERMA) blocked the transmissions of all major private TV channels including GEO, AJ and ARYONE for several hours during violent protests against President Pervez Musharraf’s bid for re-election on October 6, 2007. In addition due to same reason, the Pakistani police using teargas and batons clashed with lawyers and journalists on Saturday in where around 100 journalists were badly beaten up as they covered the agitation by the lawyers.

Although his government claims that it upholds the freedom of the press, President Musharraf imposed harsh curbs on private television channels earlier this year after the media criticized his attempts to sack the country’s chief justice, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. According to Mr. Abbas, who recently found bullets in an envelope in his car and a recipient of this year’s International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists, the kind of things that have happened to journalists under Musharraf is unprecedented. They have been killed, kidnapped and their lives in danger.

India is home to a vibrant press and the arrests, assaults, threats or killing of journalists outside of Kashmir and Assam are rare, but the recent verdict by the India’s Delhi High Court against four journalists of the renowned Delhi based English-language afternoon tabloid Mid-Day newspaper as they tried to tarnish the image of the India’s Supreme Court, has raised question about the freedom of press. However, the convicted individuals have appealed to the Supreme Court of India, based on the premise that if the truth is told, they can't be held for contempt of court. According to the report, the journalists uncovered how former chief justice Y. K. Sabharwal made rulings that appear to have helped his two sons, Y.K. Sabharwal Chetan and Nitin Sabharwal. The younger Sabharwals ran a development company in New Delhi that built shopping malls and their father made rulings that effectively shut down retail businesses that would have competed with the malls.

In an another verdict when Arundhati Roy, a Booker Award winner, was sentenced to one day in jail and a fine of $50 by the Supreme Court of India on March 6, 2002, was a clear attempt to suppress the free expression of views. She was accused of criticizing a verdict of the Supreme Court on the contentious Narmada dam. The dam flooded tens of thousands of acres and displaced thousands of rural Indians.

It becomes a significant symbol of the curb on the freedom of expression that the state of emergency is forcing on public views and opinions when the government asked private television channels to follow a set of guidelines in airing talk shows while the chief adviser of the present interim government of Bangladesh Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed claimed to the BBC in an interview that the media is operating freely in Bangladesh without any government intervention.

"We’ve given full freedom for last seven-eight months. There is no dearth of goodwill or sincerity in ensuring freedom of the media," said Dr. Ahmed, adding that the criticisms are very important but those must be objective and constructive and the government accepted and was benefited by criticisms made at the talk shows.

Discouraging live talk shows, sms or phone-ins, the guidelines advised television stations not to air more than three to four talk shows a week and edit them before put them on the air, adding to focus on cultural, economic, social and educational issues in where businessmen, educationists and intellectuals should be considered as potential guests.

No one can afford to ignore the fact that the intimidating threat of the Islamist groups to attack Prothom Alo’s offices again came after the daily’s editor, who is internationally famous and the recipient of the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for journalism, repeatedly admitted mistake, took punitive measures against the department concerned and the cartoonist Arifur Rahman, offered unqualified public apology more than once and appealed to the agitating Islamists for compassion, which is said to be an inherent component of historical Islam.

Meanwhile, the arrest and ongoing detention of the cartoonist is without legal basis. It runs contrary to international norms of human rights as well as the public interest of the nation to inhibit the free exchange of opinions, even those that may cause offense to some.

This is clearly a hypocrisy while 9 years ago, a similar cartoon was published in Bangladesh in the November 1998 issue (laugh box section, 87 pages) of Kishore Kantha by Chattra Shibir, the Student wing of the Islamist party Jamaat-E-Islami. But then, there was no religious feeling and even no case was filed against the Islami Chattro Shibir or none of Islamists groups did utter a single word against that cartoon.

Saptahik2000, a popular magazine’s Eid supplement was taken off shelves because of a memoir of exiled writer Daud Haider in where he compared Kaba Shareef of Mecca with a Baiji’s (female entertainer) house which might hurt the religious sentiment of the Muslims.

The government representative Barrister Mainul Hosein, law and information adviser to the present interim government, termed the cartoon as a conspiracy to destabilize the country after a delegation of Muslim clerics, led by chief of Islami Oikya Jote, a conglomerate of small Islamist parties, met with him.

Whereas the Islamists are simply using the Prothom Alo or Saptahik 2000 incidents as a pretext, and that too in such an organized way, particularly under emergency where all the democratic forces are barred to conduct overt political activities, to advance their common obscurantist politics, which eventually aims at setting up of theocratic state in Bangladesh.

In an another action, Bangladesh's emergency government shut down the country's only 24-hour private news channel CSB after it was accused by the country's military-backed government of airing provocative news, video footage, documentary programs and breaching emergency rules during last September's student unrest. However, according to the Bangladesh telecom regulatory commission, the channel has been accused of forgery by a government probe body. It faked the signature of a government official to get the frequency for telecasting.

During the last pro-democracy demonstrations across Nepal in April, 2006, police have beaten and arrested scores of journalists and even cut off cell phone lines so that the journalists couldn’t pass any report. No need to mention the situation of journalist of the new member of SAARC Afghanistan. Killing, kidnapping or assaulting of journalists are common there.

Sri Lankan media continues to be a target of oppression and assault by the government, criminals and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Among the more than 60,000 people killed in the last two decades in Sri Lanka are a number of journalists, some of whom were partial to particular parties in the conflict. The pattern of attacks followed by little or no investigation has become common in Sri Lanka.

Freedom of press is not an event; it’s a continuous process that should be remaining as it is as because it is widely related with the general people to re-install confidence whenever they need. Government must not restrict unnecessarily the freedom of movement of journalists or compromise the right of news media to gather, produce and disseminate information in secure and safe conditions. Only then, SAARC Media Year 2008 will be meaningful.
Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York
E Mail

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