World Press Freedom: Difficult times for journalism

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury | Published: May 10, 2019 21:27:32

On May 07, journalists from across the world expressed their satisfaction on social media platforms following the release of two Reuters' journalists, who were jailed in Myanmar for 500 days.

The two journalists-Wa Lone (33) and Kyaw Soe Oo (29)-were released along with thousands of others as part of mass amnesties that occur annually around the Burmese new year. The journalists had been convicted under the Official Secrets Act of Myanmar. They were sentenced to seven years in jail last September.

Prior to their arrest, the duo had been collecting evidence about the murders of 10 Rohingya men by the Myanmar army in the village of Inn Din in northern Rakhine in September 2017. The two were arrested even before the report was published, as they were entrapped by two policemen who handed them some documents at a restaurant. During their trial, a police witness had testified that the restaurant meeting was set up to entrap the journalists.

The imprisonment of the two was regarded as an assault on press freedom, raising questions about Myanmar's democracy. It was also seen as a silent warning to other journalists who were writing and reporting about the murder and torture of Rohingya minority in Myanmar.

Following its publication, the article, completed in collaboration with other journalists, provided damning evidence about the killings of the 10 Rohingya Muslims and the torching of their homes by Myanmar military personnel and Buddhist villagers. While still languishing in jail, the two journalists were awarded a Pulitzer for their work.

 The release of the duo was definitely a triumphant moment for the international press community. But, on the same day of May 07, journalists from across the world condemned the attack by Israeli forces on Turkey's Andalou Agency office in Gaza.

This has been the trend for the global journalism community for the past couple of years as direct attacks, imprisonment and legal action against journalists and media workers are increasing worldwide. The threats are coming as a way to stop journalists from doing their work.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), already in 2019, five journalists have been murdered in different parts of the world. The number stood at 64 in 2018, 55 in 2017, 52 in 2016 and 76 in 2015.

The threats and fears of journalists were brought to the fore during the past week, when the 26th 'World Press Freedom Day' was celebrated by most countries of the world on May 03. During events and demonstrations by journalists and civil society, it was noted that press freedom is facing difficult times in the modern world.

WORLD PRESS FREEDOM DAY: Back in December of 1993, 'World Press Freedom Day' was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly following a recommendation from the UNESCO's General Conference. Since then, May 03, which is the anniversary of the Declaration of Windhoek, is celebrated worldwide as World Press Freedom Day.

The Windhoek Declaration of 1991 was a culmination of the statement of press freedom principles compiled by newspaper journalists in Africa. The Windhoek Declaration demanded an independent and pluralistic African Press during a UNESCO seminar held in Windhoek of Namibia from April 29 to May 3, 1991. With a strong belief in the connection between a fully independent press and successful participatory democracy, the document had called for free, independent and pluralistic media throughout the world.

Over the years, the 'World Press Freedom Day' became an occasion to celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom, assess the state of press freedom across the world, defend media people from attacks on their independence and pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives or were injured or wounded in the line of duty.

PRESS FREEDOM IN BANGLADESH: According to the International Monetary Fund, Bangladesh is set to become the third fastest growing economy in the world, besides Rwanda and India, in 2019. The country is set to have a 7.30 per cent growth during the ongoing year. But progress in press freedom index has not been similarly impressive for Bangladesh. The country slid four notches to become 150th in the World Press Freedom Index revealed by the 'Reporters Without Borders' in April 2019.

The Index cited incidents from 2018 like reporters covering protests and elections coming under attack, the blocking of some news portals, and arrests of some journalists.

The Index also dreaded that press freedom in Bangladesh would come under serious challenges  in  the wake of the enactment of the Digital Security Act in October, 2018.

During an event titled "State of Mass Media: Bangladesh Perspective" and marking World Press Freedom Day at the National Press Club in Dhaka on May 02, Information Minister Dr Hasan Mahmud said the index by Reporters Without Borders was not authentic. He alleged it was biased. On the Digital Security Act, the information minister claimed, "The Digital Security Act has been enacted for all-which includes all journalists as well-so that justice for the victims of digital crimes can be ensured." He, however, admitted "There were some cases of misuse of the act in the country" and suggested "We should hold collective discussions so that none faces any harassment."

On May 04, an event titled 'Vent House', organised for the first time by Amnesty International in Dhaka on occasion of World Press Freedom Day, reflected on the attacks on media and online platforms, intrusion of privacy and repressive laws which have been used against people's legitimate rights to freedom of expression.

The event had brought together comedians, cartoonists, journalists, bloggers, musicians, poets, activists and live performance artists who shared their individual experience. It was noted at the event by most of them that they are afraid to express themselves in public spheres now, as they fear being attacked for their opinions and views.

While speaking to media people at the event, Saad Hammadi, South Asia Campaigner of Amnesty International, said, "When people don't know what they say or write may constitute an offence, they will naturally be afraid to speak. Such feelings breed resentment, and are not healthy for a country's social development."

POPULISM'S CHOKEHOLD ON MEDIA FREEDOM: Since 2014, organisations monitoring media freedom have pointed out how journalists are being attacked and becoming unwilling targets in countries where populist leaders are in power.

Many journalists have blamed US President Donald Trump's silence to have empowered the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to get away with the murder of Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul last year. Khashoggi had critically written against the Saudi regime.

It is alleged that impunity for such killings is encouraging quarters to target journalists. Bulgarian television reporter Viktoria Marinova and Mexican journalist Sergio Martinez Gonzalez were murdered in their countries a few days around Khashoggi's murder last year.

Some experts have gone on record to say that US President Donald Trump's attacks on the press as the "enemy of the people" have a "corrosive effect". These attacks are increasingly being noticed around the world by corrupt quarters, military regimes, criminal gangs and others who are usually investigated by journalists.

With more and more populist leaders coming to power in Europe and other parts of the world, media freedom will be challenged and increasingly stifled in the years to come. It is up to the citizens in the different countries of the world to support freedom of the press, as a free press is at the heart of a healthy democracy.



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