Freedom of expression is a pre-requisite for democracy, but it should not be misused to spread lies
In the recent past we have experienced controversy and debate as to whether citizens, and the media in particular, are being deprived of their right to express themselves freely on social media. References are also being drawn to the manner in which law enforcement authorities are pursuing their efforts towards maintaining public order by taking to task those who are breaching Section 57 of the ICT Act.
Legal experts have drawn attention to articles 39 (1) and (2) of our constitution, which guarantee freedom of thought and conscience and also freedom of the press.
However, one has not come across any comment about the need for observing the required ethical standards which are expected and associated universally with the dictum of freedom of expression.
This aspect in particular is worth stressing with regard to our current digitalized Bangladesh, with its numerous newspapers, wide ranging electronic media, vibrant broadcast media, and huge social media activity thanks to our internet facilities and mobile phone network.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Arman Sidhu, a columnist based in the US, has made an interesting observation in this regard. 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.” Use of social media for fomenting violence through misinformation has been used against ethnic groups in Myanmar and Sri Lanka.
Abuse of freedom of information tends to gain momentum before any referendum or election, be it at the grassroots level or at the national level. This is gaining in use, particularly among the younger generation. Ideologically aligned affiliates amplify false claims and that has an osmotic effect within the community.
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 the rise of functional and digital literacy many users have been misusing this form of communication. Right to freedom of information and the right to expression is being directed at others and being distorted.
We have seen evidence of misapplication of technology during the student protests carried out at the end of July and in the first week of August. We have seen attempts by vested quarters to transform and politicize an innocent and justified protest by students. Senior politicians from 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 the different groups of student demonstrators in different parts of the country in general and Dhaka in particular. This was done to create deterioration in law and order through violence. Fortunately, improved training in cyber security within our counter-terrorism units enabled the matter to be dealt with carefully and pre-emptively.
On August 4, an unidentified person approached student demonstrators in Jigatola and informed them that four students had been killed, one student’s eye had been gouged out, and four female students were being raped inside the Awami League office located in Dhanmodi. Without checking the veracity of this rumour, actress Nawshaba used Facebook to put out a video message about events which had not taken place. All the rumour-mongering incited unnecessary violence.
Freedom of expression is a pre-requisite for accountability. It is a cornerstone for building good democratic governance. We have to also remember that while we have the right to free expression, it should not be misused to foment anger and violence.
Muhammad Zamir, a former ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance. He can be reached at [email protected]