Thursday, November 14, 2019

Press freedom: Forking paths in a world of discontent

by Tasneem Tayeb
thedailystar.net

The recent protests in Egypt, sparked by the allegation of financial misappropriations by a government contractor against the country’s current president and former army chief, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, have died down almost as soon as they came to life. The Sisi administration resorted to its usual tactic of using brutal muscle power to clamp down on the protesters and the media. While the national media outlets—very much under the control of Sisi—did not dare breach “professional codes”, the Egyptian State Information Service (SIS), which is responsible for accrediting foreign journalists, warned the media that it has “carefully monitored” the protest coverage.

The SIS also called on the reporters to “strictly abide by professional codes of conduct.” This coming from a suppressive regime, with a track record of detaining journalists and feeding fabricated content to the local media outlets, it would not be hard to read between the lines when it comes to the SIS guidance.

The country’s autocratic regime has also detained Al Jazeera journalist Mahmoud Hussein in solitary confinement for the last 1,017 days, with charges and accusations that till date remain uncorroborated. The detention is in breach of the law of the land, which sets a maximum of 620 days of pretrial detention for people under investigation for felony. To make matters even muddier, there had been reports that the journalist was refused even passable medical attention after he suffered a broken hand, in an episode that carries reverberations from the imprisonment of the country’s first democratically elected president, who died while held in solitary confinement, with inadequate treatment and medicines.

In the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Egypt stood at 163rd out of 180 countries. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ (CPJ) annual report, Egypt held 25 journalists in 2018, and along with Turkey and China, accounted for half of all the journalists detained in 2018.

The situation in Turkey presents a grimmer picture, where 68 journalists had been incarcerated in 2018—all of them facing anti-state charges. Turkey’s uproar over the murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, while fully warranted, comes with a slight hint of irony. At a discussion organised by the Stockholm Center for Freedom (SCF) in Stockholm earlier this year, journalists who have had to flee Turkey in recent times claimed that journalists are being systematically targeted by the Erdogan regime and being brutally punished on the flimsiest of charges. Levent Kenez, former editor-in-chief of Turkey’s Meydan daily newspaper, which the Turkish government had pulled the plug on in 2016, said, “Defendants are not selected randomly, but systematically. When analysing cases, one can easily notice that those who were critical of the government, reported on corruption or exposed Erdogan’s support for jihadist elements at home or abroad, were blacklisted long before.”

Closer to home, in India, media outlets in Kashmir are struggling to cover events after the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A in August this year. A recent report by two rights networks—Network of Women in Media, India (NWMI) and the Free Speech Collective (FSC)—presents a despairing picture of the condition of journalists and media in Kashmir. The report reveals a “high degree of surveillance, informal ‘investigations’ and even arrest of journalists who publish reports considered adverse to the government or security forces; controls on the facilities available for print publication; government advertising to select publications; restrictions on mobility in select areas including hospitals and the most crippling communications shutdown of all time. Significantly, there is no official curfew, no official notification for the shutdown.”

The arrest of journalists has become a common scenario in the enchanting valley, which is also one of the most militarised zones in the world with the presence of around 900,000 troops. According to CPJ, as of September 24, at least four journalists have been detained since July 25 this year. While one was released later, the whereabouts of Qazi Shibli, editor of news website The Kashmiriyat, remain unknown, and two others—MT Rasool of Rising Kashmir and Sheikh Saleem of Kashmir Convener—have been kept in detention in a government-owned guest house in the valley’s Bandipora town, without any reason behind their arrest being forthcoming.

Apart from the fear of arbitrary detention, according to Kunal Majumder of CPJ, “communication blackout, the internet shutdown, limited access to government officials and politicians, strict controls on the flow of information, restrictions on travel, direct and indirect intimidation of journalists, and the long-running problem of dwindling government advertising revenue” have muzzled the media in Kashmir.

Often governments also resort to the use of soft power coercion to control and suppress the media; this is usually done through curtailing commercial revenues of media houses. In most of these cases, the governments not only cut down their own advertisement to these news outlets, but also discourage big corporations from giving advertisements to these media platforms. By doing this, the government tries to cripple the media outlets so that they go out of operation due to shortage of fund. A classic example of this is our own country, where the government had in 2015 asked the largest telecoms and consumer goods companies in Bangladesh to “restrict” their advertising in two of the mainstream newspapers.

Francis Fukuyama, in his book “Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy,” suggested that three elements are essential for a well-ordered society and good governance: a strong state, the rule of law and democratic accountability. However, rule of law and democratic accountability run contrary to the idea of a strong state, because when a state becomes strong, it becomes prone to discouraging accountability and rule of law. So how does one strike a balance between the three? Through a set of democratic institutions that enable a stable equilibrium.

Free press, by design, is one such institution. If there are dissenting voices within these ranks, they can easily be quashed. Alternatively, they can also spark constructive debates—debates that are the lifeblood of vibrant democracies.

Which path should we take? That is entirely up to us.