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Director Steven Spielberg's 2017 newsroom thriller The Post, set in the 1970s America when a group of journalists try to expose a massive cover-up of government secrets about the Vietnam War, beautifully captures the tension between the press and a corrupt administration. It's a standard theme for a movie on journalism—defenders of truth vs enemies of truth—but there's a twist: The Washington Post faces an existential threat if it publishes the Pentagon Papers. So it must choose between a heroic stand to assert its right to publish and an about-turn to avoid threats of retributions. Tom Hanks, who plays the hard-charging editor of the newspaper, chooses the former: “The only way to protect the right to publish is to publish.”
Journalism, by its very definition, is conflictual as it exposes what is expected to be hidden. The Post, based on a true story, lays bare the tension that arises from this exercise but also, importantly, unearths the inherent vulnerability of the profession. There are always threats of retribution in the pursuit of truths. The Internet and other modern instruments may have revolutionised how news is gathered and shared today, but threats remain constant although the nature of threats has evolved over time.
For example, before the Internet, journalists rarely had to worry about virtual violence. The main risks they faced were in the field: the physical and psychological safety concerns of reporting on, for example, disasters and conflicts. But today's media battlefields, according to Hannah Storm, director of the International News Safety Institute, are increasingly shifting online, resulting in hitherto unheard-of consequences and often extending to family members and even those remotely benefitting from their reportage. The result is a “blurring of virtual, physical, and psychological frontlines of safety” all rolled into one big, multidimensional threat.
And Bangladesh is as much vulnerable to this threat as any other country plagued by weak democratic institutions and restrictive media laws.
The country's drift toward digital absolutism looks all but certain after the passing of the controversial Digital Security Bill 2018 in parliament, on September 19, which now awaits approval from the president to be enacted as law. As the Editors' Council showed in a section-by-section analysis of the act, in trying to prevent crimes in the digital sphere, it “ends up policing media operations, censoring content and controlling media freedom and freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by our Constitution.”
The act gives unlimited power to the police who can raid a place and arrest anyone on suspicion without any warrant or permission. It also “suffers from vagueness,” using many terms that can be misinterpreted and used against the media. The result? The editors believe it will “create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation” and make journalism, especially investigative journalism, “virtually impossible.” Their verdict? What we have here is a law that's basically “anti-free press” and “antithetical to democracy.”
The manner in which this act has been drafted, promoted and eventually passed helps us understand the dynamics of state-media relations in Bangladesh. It's a fragile, uneasy relationship, fraught with distrust. The state wants the media to be subservient to it. The media has to walk a tricky tightrope between divergent expectations. Not willing to entertain criticism, the overriding political narrative tends to isolate sceptics in the press and portray them as “the enemy of the people”—“enemy” being the keyword. It heightens fear of potential threats and justifies the action to contain them. Just in August this year, one influential ruling party leader said that “a section of the media is conspiring to thwart the government.” More recently, another wrote a commentary vilifying the editors for asking for reformation of the eight disputed sections of the Digital Security Act. He even appeared to suggest that any amendment to the act, while very unlikely, will depend on the editors rectifying their “amoral” ways.
In all fairness, such bellicose rhetoric does little to calm the frayed nerves. It only turns the spotlight on the supposed “unfairness” of the journalists rather than the unfair treatment being meted out to them.
The crisis for the journalists, however, didn't begin with this law and will not end with it either. Already, Bangladesh stands 146th among 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2018 prepared by the Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), which cited growing media self-censorship amid the “endemic violence” against journalists and “the almost systematic impunity” enjoyed by those responsible. The true extent of this impunity can be understood from the Global Impunity Index 2017 released by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Bangladesh ranked 10th in the index, preceded by countries such as Somalia, Syria, Iraq, South Sudan and Pakistan—an irony given that Bangladesh far outranks these very countries in various development indicators.
How to make sense of Bangladesh's appalling press freedom records? How to prevent it from further backsliding on democracy and people's fundamental rights? More importantly for the journalists, how to continue their work with the integrity and responsibility expected of them despite the obstacles that have been put in their way?
Leon Willems, director of Free Press Unlimited, argues that while there are myriad pressures and challenges confronting the profession, resistance is possible. In a column published on the eve of this year's World Press Freedom Day, he shows how journalists around the world are fighting back, navigating all sorts of dangers including physical and reputational harm. Even in countries where there is strict online censorship and few legal protections, creative use of social media and other journalistic tools is paying dividends. Willems cited the example of the Philippines, where independent news organisations have become targets of slander by politicians and online trolls but “reporters are turning the tables with devastating effect.” For example, in a recent series of reports identifying people making threats against the media, the news website Rappler uncovered a network of trolls tied directly to government insiders.
But I think the old, traditional concept of unity can achieve what few modern strategies can. In Bangladesh, perhaps the only silver lining to the recent debacle was the unprecedented display of solidarity by the Editors' Council, an association of 20 newspaper editors, who united in ardent opposition to the Digital Security Act and published the section-by-section analysis of the act (as mentioned above) in their newspapers on the same day. This momentum needs to be kept alive and supported by other representative bodies within the wider news network.
At the risk of sounding trite, a united press is more powerful than one that is divided, and stands a better chance of surviving with dignity. There are historic precedents that show how a united front works better than journalists fighting separately. In 1971, after The Washington Post began to publish reports based on the leaked Pentagon Papers, braving threats from the Nixon administration, 15 other newspapers decided to publish copies of the study. It was a glorious moment in the history of journalism when one newspaper's fight to protect its right to publish suddenly became everyone's. Finally, the threats to their rights were removed.
Again, in August of 2018, nearly 350 news outlets united to run coordinated editorials denouncing President Donald Trump's “dirty war” on the media. Trump routinely derides media reports as “fake news” and attacks journalists as “enemies of the people”. The call for a united pushback by the Boston Globe, which had launched the campaign using the hashtag #EnemyOfNone, was joined by major US national newspapers, smaller local outlets, tabloids—even pro-Trump ones—and international publications like the UK's The Guardian. One of the editorials read: “It may be frustrating to argue that just because we print inconvenient truths doesn't mean that we're fake news, but being a journalist isn't a popularity contest. All we can do is to keep reporting."
“Unity, quality and creativity”—this can be our motto as we move into the Dark Age of Journalism.