The ugly treatment of a journalist sends a frightening message to media practitioners
Rozina Islam’s confinement at the Ministry of Health for more than five hours was an assault on all journalists in the country. It was at the same time an exposure of an ugly truth that has been undermining media freedom in this country. It is simply that the Establishment, in the form of the bureaucracy, has now arrogated to itself the power to be able to humiliate journalists with impunity, with nary a fear of the law, for bureaucrats as also politicians have come to believe that the laws which happen to be there do not exist to give protection to the media. They are there to warn journalists that there are red lines beyond which they cannot go.
And those red lines are what the Establishment draws at its own sweet will. Rozina Islam did not know that she was crossing a red line. Like every journalist dedicated to an unearthing of the truth, to an exhumation of corruption, she perhaps believed, like the rest of us, that the bureaucrats she intended to question would quail before her.
Nothing of the sort happened. For more than five hours, with grand impunity, it was the bureaucrats who attempted to drill fear into her. We have been informed her mobile phone was seized from her, that she was subjected to a body search. And in all this while those men and women at the Ministry of Health thought not at all of the repercussions of their action. They knew Bangladesh’s journalism had been crumbling for years. Treating Rozina Islam in that ugly manner was to let media practitioners know that their voices did not matter anymore.
Fear of the administration
And that is the other side of the truth. The presence of restrictive laws, the frequent calls to journalists to come forth with positive news, the hectoring journalists receive when they try to ask questions -- these are the realities journalists in the country are expected to acknowledge in these present times. The message is simple: Where fear of the media should loom over the political and administrative arena, it is now fear of the administration, with all its accumulated authority backed by laws that do not conform to democracy, which lurks in the camp of journalism.
And fear is in the spectacle of a journalist led away to prison in handcuffs. It is in the men and women in the corridors of authority informing journalists, in subtle yet no uncertain terms, that they must not ask too many questions. Rozina Islam went to the Secretariat with a bagful of questions. Now her profession, our profession, has come under question, will remain that way unless we shape a firm response to what was done to Rozina Islam.
And that brings us to that unavoidable point -- that over the last couple of decades the journalist community has frittered away its energy, its vitality, its intellectual strength through a demonstration of pusillanimity, a reality which gives space for the Establishment to pounce on it today. If there is a lesson to be learned yet once again, from the Rozina Islam episode, it is that unless the journalist community shakes itself back to life, through all the BFUJ, DUJ, CUJ and all other unions reinventing themselves in non-partisan and absolutely professional manner, journalism will go on being subjected to indignities in government offices, will go on being humiliated in handcuffs, will go on being chased as it tries to cover issues that matter to citizens.
Wounded and bleeding
Partisan journalism has left us wounded and bleeding. It has caused an ever-widening chasm among journalists on the basis of political beliefs. A journalist’s political convictions are sacrosanct, but when they have him or her move away from the need to promote the common good of the community, it is danger which stares the media in the face.
It is time for journalists to come together, to inform the country, to inform the ruling circles and the political opposition that when the media are under assault, it is democracy that takes a battering and politics that dwindles into the pointless. Beyond and above partisan political beliefs, it is the fundamentals of journalism, based as they are on the principles of secular democracy so eloquently spelt out 50 years ago as we marched off to a war for freedom, which must be restored.
Democracy must have room for dissent. Governance and administration are never threatened by the media, only refined by the inquiries of the media. It is the power of the media which keeps wrongdoers on their toes and is an incessant warning to those in power and aspiring to power that they are expected to uphold the principles enshrined in the constitution. Among those principles is nothing that speaks of laws or rules that will have journalists stay silent in the face of the manifest wrongs being committed in society.
Whether Rozina Islam is guilty of doing something at the ministry she should not have calls for purposeful inquiry. But what is galling for the country is the humiliation she went through for long hours, to which humiliation was added the indignity of her being brought to a police station and slapped with charges, filed by those who had confined her for five-plus hours, under a series of laws.
It is perfectly all right for individuals and organizations to take recourse to the law when they have good reason to do so, but to be informed -- as we now have been -- that a filing of cases is immediate cause for an accused to be pushed into incarceration, that an accused cannot stay outside prison and fight the charges leveled at her or him is once again a sign that conventions and rules do not matter anymore. When individuals incensed by media reports do not send rejoinders to editors, do not complain to the Press Council but straightaway weaponize restrictive laws against the journalist or journalists in question, it is a sign of how far journalism has been pushed over the precipice.
And this is why a rebirth of meaningful journalism, through a revitalization of journalist unions across political differences, becomes important. The old spirit -- of journalists asking questions of the political classes and the bureaucracy, of demanding answers, of persisting with the questions until answers come forth -- calls for a revival. Handout journalism is no journalism. Ingratiating journalism reduces the practitioners of the profession to images of sputtering imbecility. Silent journalism is a journey to the cemetery.
The Rozina Islam episode should lead to investigative journalism roaring into action. What was the nature of the exchange Rozina Islam had with the officials and employees at the Ministry of Health? Who, under what law, confined her in that office for those long hours? What caused her to fall ill in those hours? What information pertaining to citizens’ interest were those bureaucrats at the ministry trying to conceal from Rozina Islam?
A new course
On the answers to these questions will depend the new, purposeful course journalism will take, must take in Bangladesh. One final thought. Journalists are not the enemy of the state or the people. Journalists are patriots who, believing in democracy and rule of law, have the moral responsibility of exposing men and women who, through a blatant abuse of authority and brazen disregard of the interests of the nation, reveal themselves to be the enemy of the people.
When Rozina Islam was made to suffer, health-wise, in the Ministry of Health, the suffering was that of all of us. We felt the pain and feel it still. It is now time for journalists to turn around -- and say “enough!” and uphold their independence in this 50th year of the sovereign existence of our cherished People’s Republic.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.