There is a long road ahead to ensure the protection, safety, and welfare of journalists in Bangladesh
“Safety first. Because let’s face it. If you get injured while covering a protest, your colleagues will come to see you in the hospital, send good wishes to your family, talk about the incident for some days … but that’s all.” A representative of a top Bangladeshi 24/7 news channel said this while speaking as a guest for the students of a course on news presentation that I took recently.
Twenty-three journalists were killed in Bangladesh between 1992 and 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists or CPJ, an independent non-profit organization promoting press freedom worldwide. Among them, three died while on what the committee described as “dangerous assignments.”
In February, Borhan Uddin Muzakkir, a reporter for the news website Barta Bazar and newspaper Bangladesh Samachar, was shot in the throat while covering clashes between Awami League factions in Noakhali’s Companiganj. He succumbed to the injuries the next day.
Elias Mia, a correspondent of Daily Bijoy, was murdered in October last year in Narayanganj for “exposing a criminal nexus” in gas line distribution. The 52-year-old journalist was stabbed with a sharp weapon in Geodhara area while on his way back home.
Journalists -- whether a stringer or a full-timer -- are hunted down or become collateral victims of political tension in Bangladesh. Five of the victims listed by CPJ -- Ahmed Rajib Halder, Ananta Bijoy Das, Avijit Roy, Niloy Neel, and Washiqur Rahman Babu -- were freelancers.
Bangladesh has slipped one notch in this year’s World Press Freedom Index. It ranked 152 out of 180 countries, according to the report released in April by the Reporters Without Borders.
We now have 37 television channels, 1,277 daily newspapers, and more on the way, but the media landscape of the country is currently largely dominated by social media and citizen journalists.
In 1993, only three universities offered undergraduate and graduate journalism, mass communication, and media studies degrees in Bangladesh. This increased to 21 by the end of 2016, according to the paper “Journalism education in Bangladesh” published by the Deutsche Welle Akademie.
Apart from the universities, the government-run Press Institute of Bangladesh has been giving in-profession training for working journalists since its establishment in 1976. The other significant providers of journalism education in Bangladesh are NGOs, which occasionally offer training for in-profession journalists on issues like gender, environment, and business.
Seeing such prospects, many juvenile minds are perhaps harbouring the dream of becoming a journalist. But the burning question is how many of them are actually willing to pursue a career in journalism and then stick to it?
How many of them are willing to take the risks that come along with the thrill of travelling, being creative, and serving the core purpose of being the voice of people and contributing to the betterment of society?
The killing of a relative of a Deutsche Welle journalist by Taliban fighters in Afghanistan shows how hollow the Taliban promises of women’s rights, media freedom, and amnesty are. But aside from that, this incident highlights the fact that the safety of journalists is highly compromised across the globe. In this case in particular, the plight of not only journalists, but also their families have been stricken hard.
Alongside low salaries and job insecurity, family pressure becomes a much bigger inhibiting factor for journalists. As a result, many who start with enthusiasm, eventually move to other fields.
In fact, the doubt is sown much earlier when in their undergrads, students are advised by their families and well-wishers to take courses like business, English, public relations, etc as a back-up in case things turn problematic.
It seems there is a long road ahead to ensure the protection, safety, and welfare of journalists in Bangladesh. A staggering 1,600 journalists lost their jobs in 2020 due to closure and loss of income of media outlets during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to Article 19 Bangladesh and South Asia’s annual report on violation of freedom of expression in Bangladesh.
It is expected that any government in any part of the world will be irked with the media and news as the very nature of this fourth estate is to keep authority in check. It will always be the watchdog over any form of power, be it political or otherwise.
But with the growing number of instances of journalists and their families being assaulted, abducted, killed, and threatened, many creative minds with noble intentions might just drop their aspirations of serving the world through journalism.
In this turbulent time, what the judiciary must do is set strong examples by sentencing those responsible for crimes against journalists through speedy trials in Bangladesh. Aside from book lessons and assignments, schools offering journalism courses must provide practical tips and advice to their students wishing to pursue a career in journalism.
Unregulated distribution of licenses to TV channels and newspapers ensures mushrooming of media outlets, not the safety of journalists or freedom of expression. It is high time the government has the courage to embrace, by all means, its biggest critic and save the tottering sector.
Promiti Prova Chowdhury is a journalist. She can be reached at [email protected]