They put themselves at risk in the line of duty, but are they getting the protection they need?
Media is the sword arm of democracy. Media, both electronic and print, of today’s world, is playing an outstanding role in the creating and shaping of public opinion and of strengthening society globally.
Journalists help in fighting against corruption, nepotism, cronyism of institutional machinery, and carrying out relentless campaigns against them. Whether it’s a humanitarian crisis, a pandemic like Covid-19, global politics, or multi-dimensional international relations, media acts as a watchdog to protect public interest against malpractice and create public awareness.
Journalists all over the world, at present, are covering the global outbreak of coronavirus day and night. And they cannot cover the stories from self-quarantine. They are going to the field with the risks of being infected. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a detailed advisory for journalists globally covering Covid-19, which includes pre-assignment preparations, tips for avoiding infection in affected areas, travel planning, and post-assignment cautions.
Unfortunately, the journalists of Bangladesh are hardly being protected.
We have already seen what censorship and disinformation can lead to in the first phase of this calamity. The public needs trusted and verified news now, and will continue to need it even more in the future.
There have been allegations by the government of Bangladesh that “rumours” are being generated by some amongst this pandemic. Even if there is any reality in that, the press and electronic media should be more equipped and prepared to go out to the fields and gather more accurate information for the sake of the people of this country.
More than 100 journalists, including some editors, have tested positive for Covid-19 across the country till now, with 89 of them being in Dhaka. The infected journalists are from 47 national and regional media houses, including 22 newspapers, 19 television channels, three news portals, two radio channels, and one news agency.
The death of one journalist has so far been confirmed from Covid-19, while 24 other journalists made a full recovery. For the media, the coronavirus is a marathon, not a 100m run, and our journalists need to stay fit and healthy to get safely to the finish line.
The people of Bangladesh also deserve original reporting, and that means writers and broadcasters taking risks. As in a war or natural disaster, they have to go to the front lines, and like the rest of the world, they are exposed to as much risk as the doctors and the health care workers.
Many times, we have seen our journalists save lives by exposing fraud, bribery, corruption, and murder, so it is the duty of the state to protect media workers in this grave period of crisis.
The Bangladesh government was slow to respond to the pandemic in the initial stages. We are yet to be equipped with the necessary health care facilities and support to deal with serious cases of the novel coronavirus, despite having much time since the virus first emerged at ground zero, in China.
The country is facing these challenges because of severe mismanagement, lack of coordination, and a weak health care system. The government ignored the seriousness of this virus, and did not do anything in the first three months of this year. Lack of planning and proper protection gear are two of the main reasons for many front line workers like journalists, doctors, health care workers, and policemen getting affected.
It goes without saying that stories cannot be covered from self-quarantine. Reporters need to go to the field amid risks of being infected. Just like health care workers, law enforcers, and other emergency workers, journalists have been on the front lines since the Covid-19 pandemic unfolded in Bangladesh.
Many media outlets in Dhaka have asked newsroom staff to work from home, but that brought no respite for reporters, who have to be on the ground to cover the outbreak. Our journalists, cameramen, reporters all over the country have been totally neglected from the very beginning, and still are.
It is shameful how our dedicated media professionals are neglected, although we know that these people have the power and ability to shape people’s opinions and reveal the facts and figures through their journalism. At least, the history of Bangladesh affirms that.
Historically, from the time of our great Liberation War to the numerous occasions of different electoral processes of Bangladesh, the journalists of our beloved country have always come forward and played pivotal roles. Our reporters have never failed to bring us the facts and figures, whether it’s a dengue outbreak, natural disasters like floods and storms, or any sort of political turmoil.
The journalist community of the country took great risks during the non-cooperation movement in 1971 when they gave prominent coverage to the movement in dailies like Ittefaq, Purbodesh, Sangbad, Azad, Morning News, and Pakistan Observer. It was a clear demonstration of their patriotism and their unflinching faith in Bangali nationalism.
The daily “The People” carried banner headlines on a daily basis, targeting and criticizing the Pakistani military. During the Liberation War, broadcasting station “Swadhin Bangla Betar Kendra” played a crucial role in encouraging the guerrilla fighters and supporters.
While the freedom fighters fought against the Pakistani occupation forces in the battle fields, the artists of the radio station were engaged in another kind of war by keeping the hope of freedom alive among millions.
In recent times, whether it’s the non-participatory general election of 2014, or the “midnight general elections” of 2018, or any other local elections, the people of this country have witnessed our journalists, our front liners, working relentlessly to gather critical information that helped expose the process in this country. We are in a different kind of a war now.
All people are in danger regardless of their social background, cast, creed, wealth, or political ideologies. So, facts, figures, and true data are crucial at the moment for our survival. And the front liners who bring that to us must be protected.
Sadly, these frontliners are often being harassed because of their critical reporting. The Digital Security Act, which was enacted to stop fake news and disinformation, has often been used as a tool to muzzle critical voices in the country.
These actions are not only a threat to the democratic process, but at the same time, pose a great danger for press freedom.
An example is Sajal Bhuiyan, a journalist based in Narsingdi district. He was working on a report about the rice crisis in Bangladesh amid the coronavirus pandemic. According to him, when he visited Nasir Uddin Khan, a sub-district administrator, on April 23, 2020, to ask him questions about the alleged misappropriation of rice that was earmarked for people affected by the virus, Bhuiyan was brutally beaten up by the supporters of Khan and he had to be hospitalized later.
This is one of the many incidents which have been taking place in the country. Reporters without Borders (RSF), the media watchdog, expressed their concern regarding the attacks on journalists covering Covid-19 related news.
According to US-based Johns Hopkins University, in terms of tackling the outbreak of a disease, Bangladesh ranked the worst among South Asian countries in the 2019 Global Health Security Index.
Lack of accountability or clear descriptions of roles and activities of government bodies or healthy decision-making and command protocols, irregularities, inadequate preparedness in the health sector, as well as poor health infrastructure, together may aggravate the pandemic situation in Bangladesh.
Although we hope and pray that the pandemic does not spread in our beloved country more than it already has, we need to get our act together before more members of the media get affected.
All the political parties and social entities in the country should be vocal about the treatment towards the eyes and ears of the nation -- the media. BNP has always identified media workers as front line workers, and has repeatedly emphasized the need to protect each and every one of them.
The government now must make the welfare of these front liners a priority. Their financial and physical security has to be addressed. The government has made some promises towards the media, but the majority of journalists claim that these promises are yet to materialize.
We hope that the government will come to its senses, and support all the journalists maintaining complete neutrality, regardless of their political affiliation or background.
Shama Obaed is a member, Foreign Relations Committee, BNP.