Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Bangladesh Mourns for Freedom of Press


In 399 BC an Athenian jury convicted Socrates, then age 70, on two counts: rejecting the gods of the city and corrupting the young. Both of these charges involved solely things he said, not any physical actions.

Socrates mocked the Greek gods as silly and immoral. He taught that a good life, as a human, must be based not on imaginary gods but instead on inner virtues such as true knowledge, honesty, justice, and personal integrity. The real crux of the charge, however, was not his bad-mouthing the gods (many writers for decades had laughed at the Greek gods) but rather his endless attacks against the entire democratic culture as symbolized by the city gods of Athens.

Socrates speaks to jury at his trial: 'If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind... I should say to you, "Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you."' In history's first democracy renowned for freedom of speech, Socrates was convicted and executed for exercising it.

Obviously, people of Bangladesh or the press didn’t do or say anything like Socrates but both of them will have to be apart from each other.

Everybody shocked and thundered to hear the order from the Bangladeshi Authority that private broadcast outlets suspend news programs and print outlets halt critical news coverage related to state during a state of emergency announced on January 11, 2007.

The state of emergency raised concern in a country with a history of military rule. Two presidents had been slain and 19 other coup attempts failed in Bangladesh since it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971.

The first amendment of the US Bill of Rights guarantees four freedoms: of religion, speech, the press, and the right to assemble. The first 10 amendments to the US Constitution are collectively known as the Bill of Right. According to the article 35(b), Part-III of the constitution of Bangladesh, freedom of the press is guaranteed. Freedom of press in any country is not only a right to be guaranteed but also a way to march for a civilized society.

Democracy fails under a variety of conditions and one of the major conditions occurs when people don't have the ability to get the kind of information they need to make up their mind.

Media is the term used to denote, as a class, that section of the media specifically conceived and designed to reach a very large audience (typically at least as large as the whole population of a nation state). It’s essential that at this very sensitive moment Bangladeshi citizens have unfettered access to information.

The challenge of pluralism in Bangladesh is enormous and the gap between the fundamental rights promised in the country’s constitution and the banality of freedom of speech is now the latest experience in Bangladesh.

There is no doubt to say that only and one achievement of democracy in Bangladesh is its press. It was the press which figured out the Islamic militants in Bangladesh. Although journalists are targeted by Islamist and Maoist groups, as well as officials and politicians, Bangladesh feels proud of its media worker and the world rightfully praises and respects Bangladesh for their encouragement and professionalism.

With the restoration of democratic order from a movement of the autocratic era of the former president General H.M Ershad, press in Bangladesh is serving its level best to continue the democratic practices in the country.

There are more than one thousand newspapers and periodicals including 286 dailies in the country, which is much higher than the corresponding figures of 1990. Total circulation of newspapers and periodicals exceeds 2 million. Both Bangla and English language dailies and periodicals are read widely. In addition, country’s eight private television stations, several radio stations, and state-run televisions and radio stations are carrying country’s democratic journey.

This history of media is organized around four generations: memory and speech, print and film, telephone and television, and multimedia and internet. The last and latest includes web which is merely accessible throughout the world. So it’s not easy to shut down the mouth either press or people of Bangladesh.

Although the whole nation is plunged into an abyss of concern, instability, and uncertainty, the state of emergency shouldn’t suspend the fundamental rights of citizens. As president of the people’s republic of Bangladesh professor Iajuddin Ahmed emphasized the country’s democracy and constitution, freedom of speech should be protected as prerequisite of democracy.

We expect that the authorities in Bangladesh will withdraw the restrictions on the media, to respect the right of journalists to report fully and freely, and to ensure citizens’ rights to independent information. #

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York.