Freedom of press and protection of privacy

FR Chowdhury | Published: July 25, 2018 21:46:14 | Updated: July 26, 2018 21:01:44

It was Wednesday, July 18, 2018. I was still on my morning breakfast listening to television news. The headline news was about a court verdict that gave £210,000 in compensation to Sir Cliff Richard for breach of his privacy by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The story dates back about two years. It is about the police search of Sir Richard's house to look for suspected evidence of child pornography. The incident was reported by BBC in a manner that gave an impression as if Mr Richard was already proven guilty. The reporting went far beyond the usual reporting of incidents under trial.

Although started with this case, I would like to discuss now some other relevant common practices and procedures followed in the United Kingdom (UK). Matters relating to human rights and dignity are very important. In the UK, police are very careful as to how they deal with the accused. No one is guilty unless proven so in a court of law. The accused is just like any other person on the street. The police will behave accordingly. In no way, the accused person's dignity or privacy will be hampered. The police will not divulge his full identity to the press.

Any statement will normally inform that about a 45-year-old man from Romford area has been taken into custody or something like that. Further information may be given if the police decide to frame charges and prosecute the person. Police may convene a press conference only after a verdict by the court as to how they pursued the case. At all stages, the police will treat the accused with full respect and a sense of dignity. The cops know their role very well - law enforcement, prevention of crime and protection of the public without unnecessary harassment.

We in the UK enjoy complete freedom of expression. Except for the monarch, we can criticise any person or his/ her actions bearing in mind that we avoid any personal attack, telling lies for which we could be sued, avoid any statement that could lead to creation of rift or division between colour, creed and religion or disturb the communal harmony. Those in politics are prepared to face all sorts of criticism. It is very common to see that interesting cartoons are being published in newspapers even about the Prime Minister. Nobody goes to jail for that.

Freedom of the press is of paramount importance in the UK. Corruptions by politicians or even by civil servants cannot be hidden for long. Investigating journalism finds it all and brings it to the public. There is no place to hide. However, publication of any false report may lead to defamation or compensation by millions.

There is a new law in the UK giving public a right to know about things of their interest. Government departments and agencies have been told to give information to the public as long as it is not intended to cause any harm to any individual or any company or institute or the society. Matters relating to defence or any other state secret may not be divulged. No information may be made public that may affect business success or balance. When two parties are in legal dispute, any information given to one party should be communicated to other party as well.

People in the UK also enjoy privacy. It is protected. There are limits to public interest. If journalism crosses that line then they may have to pay for it in a heavy way. That is how, the balance is maintained. UK judiciary is the ultimate authority to deal with it; and the judge has done it in case of Sir Cliff Richard too.

In the UK, there is an Ombudsman or what we call a watchdog for all these matters. Any aggrieved person may go to the relevant Ombudsman for remedy. Courts shall always remain the final battleground. IPCC (Independent Police Complaint Commission) looks into complaints against police. Similar authorities exist for regulating press and information sector. There is also a Commissioner of Information to ensure that public can get to know about the things of public interest.

The UK model of dealing with all these sensitive matters is unique. The laws are backed up by appropriately competent administration. All watchdogs/ Ombudsman for every sector are free of government influence. They work for ultimate public interest. Australia, Canada and New Zealand have similar procedures in place. These are prerequisites for every democratic society and essential for establishing the rule of law. Developing countries like Bangladesh can learn a lot from these systems and procedures. In fact, they can seek cooperation with UK on these matters.

Bangladesh should stop the practice of parading the accused persons in front of news camera must stop. The police, RAB and other law enforcement agencies should understand that they are not part of judiciary. They should stop media trial of the accused persons. Death in police custody or in gunfight or crossfire is illegal and grave crime. There is no room for such a thing in civilised society.

Lawyers' societies or the bar associations in Bangladesh should take initiative to bring democratic reforms. Let us have a civilised and cultured society based on human rights, democratic values, equality and justice.




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