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Dhaka Tribune

A threat to press freedom

The proposition to incorporate the media into the realm of the US visa policy remains a topic of intense debate

Update : 28 Sep 2023, 05:47 AM

Media freedom is an indispensable pillar of any thriving democracy. It serves as the vigilant watchdog that holds governments and institutions accountable for their actions, ensuring transparency and accountability. 

In a democratic society, a free and independent media plays a vital role in providing citizens with the information they need to make informed decisions, participate in the democratic process, and hold their leaders accountable. It facilitates the exchange of diverse ideas and perspectives, fostering a marketplace of ideas that is essential for the functioning of a robust democracy. 

Media freedom not only safeguards individual liberties but also contributes to the overall health and vitality of a democratic society by providing a check against abuses of power and promoting the values of openness, tolerance, and pluralism. 

Without media freedom, a democracy can easily slide into authoritarianism, as the essential checks and balances provided by an independent press are eroded, and the public is left uninformed and disempowered. Therefore, protecting and upholding media freedom is not just a matter of journalistic ethics; it is a cornerstone of democracy itself. 

A news headline on September 24, 2023, piqued my interest. It stated, "Media Possibly Included in US Visa Policy," alluding to an exclusive interview with Peter Haas, the US Ambassador to Bangladesh conducted by a TV channel. 

During this interview, Ambassador Haas made a statement, suggesting that media in Bangladesh could potentially fall within the ambit of the US visa policy. This declaration has triggered a contentious debate, centering on the delicate equilibrium between national security concerns and the foundational principles of a free press.

The central point conveyed by Peter Haas is that visa restrictions will be enforced on anyone, regardless of their affiliations or roles, if they engage in actions that impede the electoral process. This policy applies uniformly to individuals associated with government parties, opposition parties, members of law enforcement agencies, members of the judiciary, or individuals in the media.

Ambassador Haas stated that the policy's application would be fair, irrespective of one's political affiliations or profession, including those in the media. He emphasized that visa approvals or denials would be solely predicated on an individual's actions and behaviour, with no regard for their identity or role. While this approach may seem equitable in theory, it does raise pertinent questions about its real-world implications.

Supporters of Ambassador Haas's position assert that ensuring accountability for one's actions is crucial in upholding the principles of a free and fair election in Bangladesh. They argue that if members of the media are found to be involved in activities that could potentially undermine the integrity of Bangladesh's elections, they should be subject to the same consequences as any other citizen. 

Nevertheless, the majority of the countrymen harbour profound concerns about how such a policy might impinge on the freedom of the press. The freedom of the press constitutes an essential cornerstone of any thriving democracy, and any attempts to curtail or supervise the media's activities have the potential to be perceived as a direct infringement upon this fundamental right. 

Hence, the possibility of the United States imposing visa restrictions on media professionals who obstruct a fair and credible election in Bangladesh gives rise to apprehensions regarding potential constraints on press freedom. 

While the underlying purpose of these restrictions might be to preserve the integrity of the electoral process, their wide-ranging applicability to members of the media could be interpreted as a direct encroachment upon the fundamental tenets of a free press. 

If journalists or media organizations face visa restrictions for their actions, it could create a chilling effect, where journalists might self-censor or hesitate to cover critical issues out of fear of reprisals. Preserving the media's independence is paramount in any democracy, as it serves as a check on power and ensures the public is well-informed. Therefore, while protecting the electoral process is vital, it is crucial to strike a balance that does not inadvertently suppress the media's ability to fulfil its democratic responsibilities.

Ambassador Haas's statement regarding the potential imposition of visa restrictions on media personnel appears to create confusion when contrasted with prior statements by higher-ranking US officials, which were widely covered in both print and electronic media. 

None of these senior US officials had hinted at the possibility of visa restrictions on media members during their briefings on the new US policy. While the US administration retains the right to revise its decisions, such discrepancies can lead to questions about the coherence and consistency of the policy, especially concerning media freedom and the democratic process. 

It is imperative for a nation's diplomatic corps to present a unified message, particularly on sensitive issues such as press freedom and electoral integrity. 

While the noble intention of ensuring a free, fair, and inclusive election is unquestionable, the proposition to incorporate the media into the realm of the US visa policy remains a topic of intense debate. Striking a delicate balance between safeguarding national interests and preserving the essential principles of press freedom is imperative. 

The ongoing discourse on whether this measure aligns with the values of a free press is certain to endure as stakeholders navigate the intricacies of this issue. The global community closely observes this discussion, fully aware of the potential repercussions it may have for the future of journalism in Bangladesh.

Dr Pranab Kumar Panday is a Professor in the Department of Public Administration at the University of Rajshahi. 

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