PRIMA facie the prime minister’s advice to her cabinet colleagues that they should take legal actions against ‘writers of the reports that are based on false information’ is rather innocuous, even well-meaning. After all, writing critical reports against anyone—minister or not—on the basis of false information amounts to libel and is culpable in the eyes of the law. Moreover, in an industry, where some media organisations, print and electronic, seem to believe ‘journalistic ethics’ is a lofty ideal and is better left confined to the pages of journalism books, malicious, and thus libellous, reports may not be quite a rarity. As such, legal actions against such questionable practices could, in fact, help strengthen the ethical mooring of journalism in Bangladesh.
Regrettably, however, it is difficult to take the prime minister’s advice, which, according to a report front-paged in New Age on Tuesday, came during the weekly cabinet meeting on Monday, at a face value. In fact, given a series of recent actions by the government, which were decidedly blatant attacks on the freedom of expression and thought, the advice sounds more like a veiled warning against the media—that the journalists should toe the incumbents’ line or else face their wrath. The Awami League-Jatiya Party government, ever since its assumption of office in January 2009, has generally appeared antagonistic to any form of criticism against its actions and attitude, be it by the news media or by its opposition in the political arena or by any dissenting voice in society.
Such antagonism has found expression in the legal and extra-legal harassment of many individuals and institutions. For example, the acting editor of a Bangla daily came under attack by allegedly activists of the ruling party, not only in Bangladesh but also in the British capital of London, for publishing report about corruption allegations against the prime minister’s son; he was eventually arrested and jailed. The government also had the licence of a private television channel revoked, apparently because it was becoming increasingly critical of the government. Then, of course, it is believed to have intimidated certain television channels to ensure certain individuals, who have consistently been critical of the government, do not appear on their talk-shows.
The government has also not hesitated to temporarily block public access to Facebook and Twitter as criticisms of the government in general, and some ruling party stalwarts in particular, were posted in these social networking sites. As recently as in the first week of this month, the detective branch of police summoned a software engineer for writing in support of the recent movement by Jagannath University students in a blog space, questioned him of his interest or involvement with the movement and also asked him not to write anything in support of the movement or critical of the government.
Moreover, according to the New Age report, the prime minister’s advice came after some of her cabinet colleagues, including the shipping minister, raised the issue. Suffice it to say, these ministers have been in the headlines in recent times for all the wrong reasons. As such, the advice could very well be construed as the prime minister’s latest attempt at protecting those members of her cabinet who have actually brought disrepute to the government with their questionable words and deeds.
Of course, as said before, any ethical aberration on the part of journalists needs to be addressed, even legally; however, the questionable practices by some must not lead to a blanket attack on press freedom. The prime minister needs to ensure that and, perhaps, come up with a call to politicians across partisan divides not to make claims and allegations that are neither substantiated by historical facts or empirical evidence so that the journalists do not have to report on such exercises in falsehood.