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Press Freedom a Casualty of COVID-19 in Bangladesh, Photographer Says

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Dhaka
2020-07-31
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Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam reacts upon his release on bail from the Dhaka Central Jail after 107 days in custody, Nov. 20, 2018.
Bangladeshi photojournalist Shahidul Alam reacts upon his release on bail from the Dhaka Central Jail after 107 days in custody, Nov. 20, 2018.
AFP

The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on journalism in Bangladesh, where the government has used it as another justification for restricting media freedom, prominent photojournalist and press freedom advocate Shahidul Alam told BenarNews in an interview this week.

Journalists have died, the pandemic has plunged the news industry into financial crisis, and the sheer volume of health news has buried other important coverage, he said.

“This, combined with the license that the government has given itself to put curbs on freedom using the virus for justification, means that basic fundamental rights have been lost, the first being media freedom,” said Alam, 65.

Although he has received many international awards, Alam faces prosecution at home and is treated as “toxic” – in his own words – by many of his countrymen since he was jailed two years ago.

He spoke to BenarNews on the second-year anniversary of Bangladesh’s road safety movement, when thousands of students blocked streets in Dhaka and other parts of the country after a speeding bus killed two students on July 29, 2018. His coverage of crackdowns on those protests led to his arrest and 107-day detention without charges.

Earlier this month Alam was named by the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) as one of four winners of its 2020 International Press Freedom Awards. All four faced arrest or criminal prosecution in reprisal for their reporting, CPJ said.

Now, the global pandemic has made their jobs more difficult and dangerous, and “fueled a ferocious press freedom crackdown as autocratic leaders around the world suppress unwelcome news under the guise of protecting public health,” it said in a statement announcing the awards.

BenarNews itself has been blocked inside Bangladesh since early April, days after it reported on an internal U.N. memo projecting that Bangladesh could see as many as 2 million deaths from COVID-19.

Bangladesh authorities confirmed more than 237,600 cases of COVID-19 and 3,111 deaths on Friday.

Seventeen journalists have died thus far from COVID-19 and another 10 who were not tested have succumbed to its symptoms, according to Our Media, Our Rights, a local journalism group. Hundreds have tested positive for the disease.

Meanwhile, at least 40 journalists have been arrested and charged under the country’s Digital Security Act since Bangladesh detected its first coronavirus case on March 8, according to an association of local newspaper editors.

“This law has been framed to protect the citizens from online defamation activities,” Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal told BenarNews on July 1.

“It is not true that the act is being misused. The persons who have been arrested under the law were involved in posting defamatory remarks on social sites. The aggrieved persons sued them under the law,” he added.

BenarNews approached two senior Bangladeshi officials to give them an opportunity to respond to critical comments Alam made about the government, but they declined.

Information Minister Hasan Mahmud said he would need more information first. “I have to first see what he [Alam] actually said. Unless I see it printed or reported by the media, I would not comment.”

Md. Murad Hasan, the state minister for information, said “it does not matter what Shahidul Alam is talking about.”

“I do not think the government has any headache regarding what Shahidul Alam is talking about. Let him [say] whatever he likes,” Hasan told BenarNews.

Excerpts from the English interview with Alam are below.

BenarNews: Given the COVID-19 pandemic, how do you see the state of press freedom in Bangladesh?

Shahidul Alam: Press freedom in Bangladesh has always been under threat ... Sadly, today, as a result of increased coercion, threats, and opportunism – with important exceptions – private radio and television channels have also largely become vehicles of government propaganda and misinformation.

As a result of the introduction of repressive laws like the Digital Security Act and the arrest and persecution of numerous journalists, whistle blowers and freedom defenders, coupled with the partisan role played by journalists in the government camp, press freedom today exists only in political rhetoric.

Earlier, people in power would wait for opportune moments for wrongdoings, relying on other news to block out unwanted publicity for misdeeds. Since COVID-19 today takes up so much bandwidth, a lot of other news can be easily buried. News that does make it to the surface, soon gets forgotten.

This, combined with the license that the government has given itself to put curbs on freedom using the virus for justification, means that basic fundamental rights have been lost, the first being media freedom.

BN: Why have so many journalists in Bangladesh been getting infected with COVID-19 and dying?

SA: The high number of deaths of journalists, health workers, police and other people in contact with potential carriers of COVID-19, has to do with a combination of faulty communication, a failure to take precautionary measures and the complete collapse of a health system which was already in dire straits.

Neither media houses, nor medical centers provided protective gear to its frontline workers. Health centers continue to be woefully lacking, and quality treatment is reserved for VIPs and people closely linked to the government. As such the average person has no way of getting effective treatment. Frontline workers have paid the maximum penalty.

The media houses do not have a coherent COVID-19 policy. Some provide PPE [personal protective equipment], some don’t. Some provide insurance, some don’t. Some pay medical expenses, some don’t.

I am not aware of a single media house providing COVID-19 training to its journalists. Such training could be the starting point of both the safety and reporting skills of journalists.

BN: Many newspapers and TV stations have been in a financial crisis caused by the ongoing pandemic. How will this hamper press freedom in Bangladesh?

SA: Newspapers and TV stations which did not toe the government line were in trouble even before COVID-19, as the major multinationals had been given instructions not to advertise in them. Several of the leading editors have multiple cases against them.

With the advent of COVID-19, the cost of reporting has also escalated, insurance policies have become more costly and advertising revenue has plummeted. Journalists, generally working on reduced salaries, are having to find other work to sustain themselves.

What has suffered most is investigative journalism, which is expensive to do, and generally involves speaking truth to power. Several journalists have been beaten up and jailed for reporting on corruption related to COVID-19 relief operations. This of course adversely affects press freedom.

On the other hand, media houses still operate in a very traditional way. COVID-19 has led to shifts in work practice that would make sense even under normal conditions. Data journalism, computer-assisted reporting and digital security are all skills that the journalist of today must master.

Creating a core content engine around which multiple media products can be developed has made business sense for some time, but the gatekeepers in media houses are often old school and reluctant to embrace change. This could be a wake-up call that will transform the industry.

Students gather in Dhaka to join protests over road safety, Aug. 1, 2018. [BenarNews]Students gather in Dhaka to join protests over road safety, Aug. 1, 2018. [BenarNews]
Students gather in Dhaka to join protests over road safety, Aug. 1, 2018. [BenarNews]

BN: The protest movement for road safety in Bangladesh started on July 29, 2018. You played a role in it, for which you had to go to jail. Has anything changed in terms of people’s demand for safe roads?

SA: There has been no attempt to arrest or charge the attackers of the students and journalists in August 2018. The cases against the protesting students are also ongoing. Shahjahan Khan, the minister of shipping in 2018, who was at the center of the incident, is still the vice-president of the Jatiya Sramik League [a national trade union federation] and executive president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation.

Currently there is no pressure on the government to change its ways. There is no political opposition, and no effective leadership to unite the public. Intelligence units are constantly on the alert, “removing” any threat to organized resistance. Several attempts to organize have been crushed. But people have not given up hope.

Recent separate protests by students and teachers and artists, writers and journalists have gathered momentum, though COVID-19 makes physical mobilization more difficult. The students had wanted me to speak at the anniversary of the event, but backed out due to government pressure.

BN: You embraced imprisonment for upholding press freedom and freedom of expression. To you, what are the biggest challenges that stand in the way of press freedom and freedom of expression?

SA: What I did was something any journalist should normally be doing. It was the arrest that was against the norm. As a result of the arrest however, I can no longer work the way I used to.

Firstly, the case still hangs over me and I potentially face 14 years in prison if convicted. I have to constantly keep my bail documents with me. I am often harassed at the airport. For security reasons, I cannot be without an escort at any time. We’ve lost virtually all Bangladeshi clients, as they don’t want to be seen as being “Shahidul-friendly.” Many people are scared of being seen with me, as that may endanger them.

... I used to be regularly invited to television programs, but since my release nearly two years ago, I have not been asked once. Essentially, I am considered “toxic” and associating with me in any shape or form is dangerous as it will evoke the wrath of the government, hence, except for the few who continue to resist, others observe a distance. …

At a practical level, I do not go round on a bicycle like I used to. I never go anywhere alone. I don’t use a SIM card, to avoid being tracked, and I have to constantly be in contact with the home or office, to let them know where I am and who I am with.

That obviously affects my work practice. The type of reportage work I used to do, is no longer doable. I have however, insisted on speaking out when I have to, regardless of these conditions.

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