বৃহস্পতিবার ৩০শে নভেম্বর, ২০২৩ খ্রিস্টাব্দ | ১৫ই অগ্রহায়ণ, ১৪৩০ বঙ্গাব্দ

Living in Chains

  |   বুধবার, ২৯ ডিসেম্বর ২০২১ | প্রিন্ট

Living in Chains

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), a genius in political thought in the mid of eighteenth century, 1762 begins his magnum opus- the Social Contract, with the observation: ‘Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains.’ What Rousseau meant is that state laws curtailed the innate freedom of man. Laws promulgated by the state took away the birthrights of man.

Today the chain has taken different forms in various countries. In our country Bangladesh, the Digital Security Act 2018 (DSA) is one such law that has created professional hazards for the journalist community. This law has created professional impediments for journalists to uphold truth, the fundamental ethics for reporting by any working journalist. The journalist community in Bangladesh is really in chains. They cannot unveil the truth for fear of becoming victims of the state machinery. In the following paragraphs, I shall narrate a few occurrences in which a number of journalists had to suffer great nightmares.

The Bangladesh Business Standard on 11 July 2021 reported the story of Tanvir Hasan Tanu, Thakurgaon correspondent of the online news portal Jagonews24. Tanu was arrested on 10 July 2021 under DSA when he was suffering from post-Covid complications. He was in the hospital bed handcuffed and was released 19 hours after the arrest. He was arrested while he was compiling a report on irregularities of a local government hospital.

The ordeal of Mushtaq Ahmad, a reputed writer, is well-known. In May 2020, he was arrested under DSA that allows arrest without a warrant for criticizing the government online. The fault of Mushtaq was that he, in his Facebook, criticized the government for its failure in handling the Corona Virus pandemic.

On 25 February 2021, Mushtaq was found dead at Kashimpur High-Security Prison Gazipur on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka. According to available media, when Mushtaq fell ill on 25 February night, he was first taken to the prison hospital and later to Shaheed Taj Uddin Ahmad Medical College Hospital at Gazipur where the duty doctor declared him dead. There was a great uproar in the country on his death particularly for refusing him bail on six occasions.

Ruhul Amin Gazi, a Liberation War Vattern and a former president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) is languishing in prison for about a year due to his uncompromising stance and outlook in the struggle for the restoration of the freedom of the press in the country. Abul Asad, the editor of Daily Sangram and a highly respected journalist of the country, has been released on bail after about one year in custody on 7 March 2020. He was arrested on 13 December 2019. At the time of his arrest, the office of Daily Sangram was attacked and vandalized by hoodlums. Police were silent spectators when the hooligans entered the office. Md. Sadat Hossain, acting News Editor of the same daily was also been in the prison since November 2020. He is released on bail on August 2021.

The Bengali daily Amar Desh Editor Mahmudur Rahman left the country as he felt insecure and now lives in exile. He was arrested on the flimsy ground twice. He was in prison for more than four years.

The Amar Desh is not in circulation for more than eight years because the authorities sealed its printing press as a result of which more than one hundred working journalists became unemployed along with another one hundred correspondents working across the country.

Oliullah Noman and Mahabubur Rahman, senior reporters of the newspaper, have already been in voluntary exile. There are also cases against Syed Abdal Ahmed, executive editor, Jahed Chowdhury, news editor, Alauddin Arif, and Nasir Uddin Shoaib, senior reporters of the newspaper. There are about 22 cases against M. Abdullah, the city editor of Amar Desh and President of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ). Recently, bank accounts of about 10 other journalist leaders including him have also been subpoenaed by Bangladesh Financial Intelligence Unit (BFIU), a body formed by Bangladesh Bank to oversee the financial irregularities; the rest were BFUJ secretary-general Nurul Amin Rukan, former president of another BFUJ Mollah Jalal and former acting secretary-general Abdul Majid, Dhaka Union of Journalists President Quader Gani Chowdhury and General Secretary Shohidul Islam, a fraction of DUJ secretary-general Sajjad Alam Khan Tapu, President of Dhaka Reporters Unity Morsalin Nomani and General Secretary Mashiur Rahman Khan, president of the National Press Club Farida Yasmin and general secretary Ilias Khan.

This incident has been made pandemonium in the realm of journalism. Forgetting loyalty the journalist community has condemned the act which taken by the government termed it a notorious one.

Dr. Kanak Sarwar, a Bangladeshi journalist in exile in the United States, is known as a fierce critic of the Awami League government. Her sister was recently arrested. Kanak told the BBC that a fake ID was opened on Facebook in the name of his sister 10/12 days prior to arresting her. Her sister lodged a GD (General Diary) with the police on October 1 after some offensive posts there. Kanak said, “My sister was actually a candidate for trial and now she has been indicted.” RAB has filed one case against him under the Digital Security Act and another under the Narcotics Act.

Eminent photographer Shahidul Alam, photojournalist Shafiqul Islam Kajal, and many others had to face great tribulations after being arrested under the DSA.

C R Abrar, Professor of International Relations at Dhaka University and a civil society activist, in an article on the indiscriminate use of DSA, published in the Daily Star on 7 March 2021 wrote: “A detailed analysis of 197 cases of 2020 by Prothom Alo found that most of the cases under DSA were filed for ‘making adverse remarks’ (kotukti), ‘defamation’, ‘sharing distorted images’, ‘spreading rumors’ and ‘conspiracy against the state’. In 80 percent of instances, the plaintiff was either leader or activist of the ruling party or police. Of the 197 cases, 88 were filed by Awami League MPs, Union Council chairs and activists of youth, student and volunteer wings of the ruling party, and 70 more were filed by the police. Journalists were the principal targets.”

“The investigation further revealed that the news items for which journalists were charged included theft of relief goods, criticism of Covid-19 treatment arrangements, criticism of actions of local MPs and public representatives, and land/property grabbing by the locally powerful. Some cases were filed for updating Facebook statuses on current topics, and criticisms of MPs and local government representatives. Of the 197 cases, as many as 48 were filed for allegedly publishing false news against MPs, public representatives, and ruling party activists; 40 for objectionable posting against Bangabandhu, the president, prime minister, and other important persons of the state, and 30 for passing adverse remarks against religion, hurting religious sentiments and spreading communal hatred.

“The tenuous nature of the charges is evident from the following figures. In the last seven years, of the 2,682 cases filed at the Dhaka Cyber Tribunal, the only competent court to try cases under the ICT Act and DSA, 990 were disposed of up to September 2020. Of those, more than 400 were disposed of after the final report. In many cases, the accused were exonerated as there was not enough evidence to support the charges. In merely 25 cases, the state was able to prove the charges. Of these, 24 were filed under the ICT Act and only one under the DSA.”

After the enactment of DSA, daily New Age on 21 October 2018 in a report captioned ‘Digital Security Act 2018: Young Generation Speaks’ that young people consider the law controversial. It was feared that the law could be used to suppress anti-government dissenters as some of the provisions of the law are vague and ambiguous, open to interpretation, and prone to abuse, the report stated. The law has been much used (or misused) to sue, arrest, and torture journalists.

Ali Riaz, a professor of Political Science at Illinois State University in the US, told Deutsche Welle: “Provisions in the DSA pose a threat to fundamental rights enshrined in the Bangladesh Constitution and international standards of freedom of expression. The law has not been made to protect the citizens, but rather to serve the interests of the ruling party and the government. It has deliberately incorporated vague and ambiguous concepts, which allow the government to interpret them as they wish and use as a pretext to silence any critical voice”.

(Reference: How is Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act Muzzling Free Speech? Deutsche Welle (DW), Link: https://p.dw.com/p/3qAb1. Assessed on 3 March 2021.)

In that report of the Deutsche Welle stated that citing data from Bangladesh’s Cyber Crime Tribunal, Amnesty International reported that about 2,000 cases have been filed under the DSA, with journalists often targeted. Ten newspaper editors faced legal charges under the Act for reporting on leaders of the ruling Awami League party in 2020.

In addition to DSA, the government is now using the Official Secret Act 1923, a colonial legal instrument, to harass working journalists. The law was for the first time used in fifty years and Rozina Islam, a senior reporter of large circulated daily Prothom Alo, was detained on May 2021 using this black law when she visited the Ministry of Health for preparing an investigative story on the corruption of the officials of the Ministry. She recently received the Free Press Prize given by the Netherlands-based organization “Free Press Unlimited”, which works for media freedom and the development of journalism in more than 40 countries. Last year, Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, who got Nobel in Peace this year, also had received the Free Press Award.

It was noted that eminent journalist Shaukat Mahmud was in Jail too. He is still appearing before the court in various cases. It is needless to say that Mr. Shaukat, who was also a former president of the National Press Club and Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), has been sued by the government for his uncompromising role in guarding the freedom of the Press in particular and in restoring democracy in general.

From such harassment, it is self-evident that a democratic state cannot function by denying the people the innate rights- freedom of expression, freedom of the press, and freedom of assembly. These rights in no way are a hindrance to the functioning of a democratic government rather these can create a congenial environment in which a people can make progress. In fact, the government can earn the respect and loyalty of the people by allowing a free press to function smoothly.

(Reference: Indian Subcontinent in Politics and Political Thoughts, The book originally in Bangla, by Syed Maksud Ali, published by Mowla Brothers, 2003, PP-57-58)

This has been aptly reflected in the United States Declaration of Independence which states: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal that they endowed by their Creator with the certain unalienable rights, which among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights enshrined in this Charter of the United States are so important that if these rights are destroyed by the government in any form, the people have the right to alter or abolish that government. 2

(Reference: National Archives, America’s founding documents, Declaration of Independence: a transcription, https://www.archives.gov/founding docs/declaration transcript. Assessed on 25.08.2021)

Writer: Basir Jamal
Vice President: Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ),
Chief Reporter: The Daily Manobkantha

 

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