World celebrates silver jubilee of Press Freedom Day

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Keep power in check

Last week the world must have been basking in the glory of dramatic turns of events in the Korean Peninsula – Kim of one Korea shaking hands with Moon of another. The world didn’t miss out the newfound warmth of Sino-India relationship with Modi and Jinping seen all smile in Wuhan. It was in the same week we heard from live telecast of French President Macron’s speech in Capitol Hill that “We can choose isolationism, withdrawal, and nationalism … It can be tempting to us as a temporary remedy to our fears. But closing the door to the world will not stop the evolution of the world. It will not douse, but inflame, the fears of our citizens.”

In all these developments our hopes rekindled on prospect of a new world order where democracy will prevail over authoritarianism and peace will reign supreme while animosity and jingoism shall lose currency. But amidst such a positive vibe, the Thursday’s (May 3) celebration of this year’s World Press Freedom Day returned with a new food for thought that whether all democracies guarantee free speech and free media. Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF) released its 2018 World Press Freedom Index on the eve of the day’s celebration evaluating the level of press freedom in 180 countries. Sadly, this year’s map reflects the dramatic growing animosity towards journalists. RSF press freedom map shows – “Hostility towards the media from political leaders is no longer limited to authoritarian countries such as Turkey (down two at 157th in the ranking) and Egypt (161st). The hatred of journalism is now a dangerous threat to democracies as well.”

More and more democratically-elected heads of state are increasing their verbal and physical violence against the press. “This is the case in particular in the United States (45th, -2), the Czech Republic (34th, -11), Slovakia (27th, -10) or in Malta (65th, -18) where the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered in the explosion of her car, simply for doing her job,” states RSF, an international non-profit, non-governmental organization that promotes and defends freedom of information and freedom of the press. Faced with the trivialization and brutality of these attacks, it is urgent to take action to defend and preserve the freedom of information in the world, states RSF that has consultant status at the United Nations. It was the UN General Assembly (UNGA) that proclaimed the World Press Freedom Day back in December 1993 following the recommendation of UNESCO’s General Conference.

What is Bangladesh’s standing?

Among the 180 countries that RSF ranked to rate their respective standing as far as freedom of press is concerned, Bangladesh got the 146th slot. When compared with last year’s rating, Bangladesh is no worse off as the country was ranked 146th in 2017 as well. But when one surfs through the index map, s/he will find Bangladesh at the bottom of the list if that’s drawn among eight South Asian countries. Of the eight, Pakistan and Bangladesh are positioned at the bottom ranked as 7th and 8th respectively. Bhutan, Nepal and Afghanistan comes as top three followed by Maldives, Sri Lanka and India.

In Bangladesh, it is a bad idea to criticize the constitution or Islam, although the country is officially secular, observes RSF in its report adding that “Journalists and bloggers who resist censorship or self-censorship on these subjects risk life imprisonment or the death penalty, while Islamist militants often issue online calls for the murder of outspoken secularist bloggers and writers.” It notes, though there is real pluralism, but media self-censorship is growing as a result of the endemic violence against journalists and media outlets, and the almost systematic impunity enjoyed by those responsible.

In 2017, at least 25 journalists and several hundred bloggers and Facebook users were prosecuted under the Information and Communication Technology Act, which penalizes online content that is regarded as defamatory or blasphemous. “Instead of amending this law, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government proposed a new digital security law in early 2018 with vaguely-worded provisions that would allow the authorities to clamp down even more on dissent,” it concludes.

About Pakistan, which is seven ranks up from Bangladesh, RSF observes, “The Pakistani media are regarded as among the most vibrant in Asia but they are targeted by extremist groups, Islamist organizations and the feared intelligence agencies, all of which are on RSF’s list of predators of press freedom.”

“With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media and journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals,” RSF states in portraying the press freedom situation in India, ranked eight notch up from that of Bangladesh.

 It says more and more democratically-elected leaders no longer see the media as part of democracy’s essential underpinning, but as an adversary to which they openly display their aversion. “The United States, the country of the First Amendment, has fallen again in the Index under Donald Trump, this time two places to 45th. A media-bashing enthusiast, Trump has referred to reporters “enemies of the people,” the term once used by Joseph Stalin.”

The line separating verbal violence from physical violence is dissolving. In the Philippines (down six at 133rd), President Rodrigo Duterte not only constantly insults reporters but has also warned them that they “are not exempted from assassination.” In India (down two at 138th), hate speech targeting journalists is shared and amplified on social networks, often by troll armies in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pay. In each of these countries, at least four journalists were gunned down in cold blood in the space of a year.

RSF finds that verbal violence from politicians against the media is also on the rise in Europe, although it is the region that respects press freedom most. “In the Czech Republic (down 11 at 34th), President Milos Zeman turned up at a press conference with a fake Kalashnikov inscribed with the words “for journalists.” In Slovakia, (down 10 at 27th), then Prime Minister Robert Fico called journalists “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” and “idiotic hyenas.” A Slovak reporter, Ján Kuciak, was shot dead in his home in February 2018, just four months after another European journalist, Daphne Caruana Galizia, was killed by a targeted car-bombing in Malta (down 18 at 65th).

“The unleashing of hatred towards journalists is one of the worst threats to democracies,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Political leaders who fuel loathing for reporters bear heavy responsibility because they undermine the concept of public debate based on facts instead of propaganda. To dispute the legitimacy of journalism today is to play with extremely dangerous political fire.”

2018 Theme: Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and the Rule of Law

This year marks the silver jubilee celebration of the World Press Freedom Day. UNESCO organised the 25th year celebration of the Day along with Ghanaian government in Accra, Ghana on 2-3 May. This year’s global theme was ‘Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law’, and it covered issues of media and the transparency of the political process, the independence and media literacy of the judicial system, and the accountability of state institutions towards the public.

In his message on this occasion, the United Nations Secretary-General, António Guterres, said,”On World Press Freedom Day 2018, I call on governments to strengthen press freedom, and to protect journalists. Promoting a free press is standing up for our right to truth.”

The theme of the 2018 celebration highlighted the importance of an enabling legal environment for press freedom, and gave special attention to the role of an independent judiciary in ensuring legal guarantees for press freedom and the prosecution of crimes against journalists. At the same time, the theme addressed the role of the media in sustainable development, especially during elections - as a watchdog fostering transparency, accountability and the rule of law. The theme also aimed to explore legislative gaps with regard to freedom of expression and information online, and the risks of regulating online speech.

Within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the contribution of journalists and media workers is most associated with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)-16 of peace, justice and strong institutions. In order to reach this goal, effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels must be developed, and press freedom is essential for this.

Each year May 3 returns with the promise of the World Press Freedom Day that it is an opportunity to – celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom; assess the state of press freedom throughout the world; defend the media from attacks on their independence; and last but not the least pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.

Norway and North Korea, first and last again in 2018

In this year’s press freedom index by RSF, Norway is first for the second year running, followed – as it was last year – by Sweden (2nd). Although traditionally respectful of press freedom, the Nordic countries have also been affected by the overall decline. Undermined by a case threatening the confidentiality of a journalist’s sources, Finland (down one at 4th) has fallen for the second year running, surrendering its third place to the Netherlands. At the other end of the index, North Korea (180th) is still last.

The index also reflects the growing influence of “strongmen” and rival models. RSF states, “After stifling independent voices at home, Vladimir Putin’s Russia (148th) is extending its propaganda network by means of media outlets such as RT and Sputnik, while Xi Jinping’s China (176th) is exporting its tightly controlled news and information model in Asia. Their relentless suppression of criticism and dissent provides support to other countries near the bottom of the index such as Vietnam (175th), Turkmenistan (178th) and Azerbaijan (163rd).”

Published annually by RSF since 2002, the World Press Freedom Index measures the level of media freedom in 180 countries, including the level of pluralism, media independence, the environment and self-censorship, the legal framework, transparency, and the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information. It does not evaluate government policy.

The global indicator and the regional indicators are calculated on the basis of the scores assigned to each country. These country scores are calculated from answers to a questionnaire in 20 languages that is completed by experts around the world, supported by a qualitative analysis.

Reaz Ahmad is Executive Editor of United News of Bangladesh

  • DhakaCourier
  • Vol 34
  • Issue 43

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