Responsible use of freedom of expression

Muhammad Zamir | Published: August 26, 2018 21:02:29 | Updated: August 26, 2018 21:12:57

THOUSANDS OF STUDENTS PROTESTED ON AUGUST 05, 2018 IN DHAKA OVER ROAD ACCIDENTS AND LAX ENFORCEMENT OF TRAFFIC LAWS: "…we have seen attempts by vested quarters to transform and politicise an innocent and justified protest by students venting their sorrow and anger at the unfortunate death in a road accident of their two class friends… Fortunately, improved training in cyber security enabled the counter-terrorism units deal the matter carefully and pre-emptively."    —Photo: Reuters  

For the last few weeks we have experienced controversy and debate as to whether citizens in general and those associated with the media in particular are being deprived of their right to express themselves freely and participate actively within the paradigm of inter-active engagement as understood in the context of social media. References are also being drawn to the manner in which the law enforcement authorities are pursuing their efforts towards the maintenance of public order by taking to task those, who, according to their interpretation, are breaching Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act.

Attention has been drawn to this evolving situation not only by representatives of different political parties in the Opposition but also representatives from the civil society both at home as well as from abroad. This has been done on the plea that freedom of expression is a pre-requisite for implementation of good governance. Legal experts have also drawn attention to Article 39 (1) and (2) of our Constitution that guarantees freedom of thought and conscience and also freedom of the press.

One has not however come across any comment about the need for observing the required ethical standards that are expected and associated universally with the dictum of freedom of expression.

One needs to stress here about this aspect particularly with regard to the current digitalised world in Bangladesh with its numerous newspapers (in print and also on-line), the wide ranging electronic media (with nearly 30 TV channels in the private sector), the vibrant broadcast media (including several community radio networks and F.M. stations) and a huge social media activity thanks to our internet facilities and mobile phone network (with more than 140 million users).

I am stressing on the need to observe ethical and regulatory standards to strengthen our rights more meaningfully. In this regard I shall refer to certain attributes that need to be observed in the context of freedom of expression within the parameter of any functioning media unit.

(a) Subsection 1 of Article 39 of our Constitution states that freedom of thought and conscience is guaranteed but subsection (2) stipulates that it is "subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interests of the security of the State… or in relation to …incitement to an offence";

(b) It is also stressed that certain factors have to be kept in mind in undertaking news coverage and subsequent reporting in all formats of the media- print, electronic, broadcasting or social media. These include- (i) accuracy, (ii) fairness in the reporting of views of both sides, (iii) underlining and revealing the sources of the information used, (iv) gathering information fairly and using the same without having induced it through the use of money, (v) media representatives not taking gifts or money for their services, (vi) be accountable to society, (vii) be neutral, impartial and free from bias in the use of freedom of expression, (viii) respect social norms and values, (ix) mention with regard to opinion polls the identity of the sponsor of the survey, sample size and also report the proper date and reasons behind the survey, (x) not having an intentional discriminatory attitude in reporting a situation, and (xi) not use misleading images or video clips (particularly in the electronic media or the social media).

(C ) Be consistent in following the norm enunciated in Article 38 (a) of the Constitution that prohibits being part of an association or promoting the interests of any group that has been formed for the purpose of destroying the religious, social and communal harmony among the citizens.

These are difficult norms that one has to observe, either in one's capacity as a media representative or as an individual exercising one's right to freedom of expression. This dynamics has gained world attention and has resulted in severe action in many countries.

MISUSE OF CYBER SPACE: Misuse of cyber space by individuals and also state institutions in different developed countries have led to charges of breach of national security and socio-economic problems. These in turn have resulted in political shadow fighting and in certain cases imposition of sanctions. A classical case has been the charges and counter-charges that have emerged from the US Presidential election held in 2016. Its reverberations are still continuing.

Arman Sidhu, a columnist based in the USA, has made certain interesting observations. In his article, "Disinformation threatens to exacerbate religious tensions", he has recalled former Indian President Abul Kalam's comment: "the greatest danger to our sense of unity and our sense of purpose comes from ideologists who seek to divide the people". In this regard it is underlined that disinformation can be a detracting factor that harms common citizens. It will be useful in this context to note recent events that have proved damaging due to the use of this tool. This has included the manipulation of voter perception in the case of Brexit, Catalonia, France, Kenya and several other countries, including Austria, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Italy which have been infected with the strains of populism and sectarianism.

Use of disinformation through the social media has fomented violence against ethnic groups in Myanmar and Sri Lanka. As a result of misuse of this terrible tool, Bangladesh today is having to host and look after more than a million Rohingya Muslim migrants who have sought the sanctuary and safe shelter of this country after being expelled from the Rakhine State in Myanmar.

Misuse of freedom of information tends to gain momentum before any referendum or an election, be it at the grassroots level or at the national level. Accusations surface in a manner aimed at harming potential opponents and contenders to a post. Facilities available through Facebook, WhatsApp and other applications available in the Social Media platform are then adapted to project and propagate half-truths and also false reports. This is gaining in use, particularly and most unfortunately, among the younger generation. Ideologically aligned affiliates amplify false claims and that has an osmotic effect within the community.

Sometimes inflammatory headlines are used to draw attention aimed at disseminating content that are bogus in real terms. The proliferation of fake news was evident during the recent State election in the Indian State of Karnataka.

Arman Sidhu  in his article has exposed that a  recent investigation by Indian news website Cobra Post, revealed that journalists , posing as Hindu nationalists had offered cash to major media organisations , in exchange for publishing polarising pro-Hindutva content.  This was ostensibly done to fabricate news that would push undecided voters towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Indian general elections to be held in 2019.

BANGLADESH SCENARIO: In Bangladesh, we have noticed over the last four years a growing trend in the use of social media as an instrument, for social or political purposes. With rise of functional and digital literacy and the availability of internet support, many users have been misusing this format of communication. Right to freedom of information and, in many cases, the right to expression is being directed at others and being distorted through different applications.  

We saw evidence of the after-effects of mis-application of digital technology during the 2013-14 period when fabricated news items were uplinked in Bangladeshi web portals of some extreme right and religious political parties. This resulted in arson, destruction of property and vehicles, injuries and death of innocent civilians.

This time round, at the end of July and in the first week of August, 2018 we have seen attempts by vested quarters to transform and politicise an innocent and justified protest by students venting their sorrow and anger at the unfortunate death in a road accident of their two class friends. Senior politicians from certain Opposition parties, instead of sharing their concern, tried to use this protest for their own political ends. This included urging their political supporters to infiltrate different groups of student demonstrators in different parts of the country in general and Dhaka in particular. This was attempted to create deterioration in law and order through violence. Fortunately, improved training in cyber security enabled the counter-terrorism units deal the matter carefully and preemptively.

On August 04 an unidentified person approached the student demonstrators in the Jigatola area and informed them that two students had been killed, one student's eyes had been ripped off and female students were being raped inside the Awami League Office located in Dhanmodi. Without checking the veracity of this rumour, a popular actress used the Facebook to project a false video clip about events that had not taken place. All this rumour mongering incited unnecessary violence. Later that day, a team of protesting students searched the Awami League office and confirmed that no evidence of murder or rape had been found at the Awami League office premises.

The government tackled a difficult situation and contained irresponsible use of social media. Those trained in cyber security as counter-terror measure discharged their duties satisfactorily. However, the relevant authorities need to be careful in using Section 57 of the ICT Act. It should not become an instrument of controversy.

Freedom of expression is a pre-requisite for accountability. Transparency assists in better decision making. This is the corner stone for building good democratic governance.

The present government in its own way is not only trying to generate sustainable economic development but is also trying to take the nation forward in terms of social empowerment. There are still many areas and challenges that will need to be addressed. Use of digitalisation will definitely help us to overcome these shortcomings.

We have to have faith in ourselves and work together. This is the only way forward. We have to also remember that while we have the right to freedom of expression, it should not be misused to foment anger and violence. The law enforcement agencies should also try to help the media discharge their duties effectively and safely under difficult circumstances. They must not be assaulted. That will affect connectivity. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.



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