Citizens and civil society must be at the frontline of the battle to protect press freedom and denounce violent crimes against journalists. The year 2018 was not a good one for journalists, to put it mildly.
According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), at least 63 professional journalists were killed around the world in 2018, a marked increase by 15 percent since 2017. While the brutal killing of Jamal Kashoggi instantly captured global attention, let’s not forget about the many other horrific crimes against journalists like the gruesome murder of Bulgarian television journalist Viktoria Marinova last year.
The media watchdog’s bleak summary of 2018 was hardly surprising for many of us who had already been demoralised by the state of press freedom in our own countries and the acerbic rhetoric spewed against the media by world leaders. And the fact is, it’s hardly possible to separate such toxic rhetoric from the ghastly crimes against journalists that we have seen in the recent past. The climate of fear is palpable globally as it is no longer just authoritarian countries who are bent on suppressing the media—so-called democracies, too, have joined the club.
In the last two years, since Mr Trump took office as the president of the United States, hateful rhetoric against the media has become normalised to a great extent as more and more people find it resonating with their views. Determined to bash the media at every opportunity, Mr Trump, armed with Twitter, which is apparently his favourite mode of communication, never fails to remind his 57.5 million followers on the social media platform of the dangers of fake news—a flashpoint for the spike in hate against the mainstream media in recent times. “Fake News is truly the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE!” Mr Trump tweeted just this past Friday. One would have thought that in an age where reaching out to the masses has never been easier, thanks to the information and technology revolution, the myriad of other issues such as education and healthcare would get precedence over futile wars against the media that too many seem to be buying into.
The point is that the rise in hatred against journalism and crimes against journalists didn’t simply happen in a vacuum. Dangerous rhetoric has consequences. Even in Europe, which is known to have the most respect for press freedom, there has been an increase in hateful rhetoric against the media, according to RSF. Czech President Milos Zeman, who is quite well-known for having a distaste for the press, once held up a replica gun marked “for journalists” in a conference. This is the same man who had once referred to journalists as “manure” and “hyenas”. In Asia, Philippine strongman Rodrigo Duterte’s assault on the media has taken on an extreme nature, as, among other instances, the president has called out media organisations in the country using words such as “bullsh*t” and “garbage”.
Governments around the world have increasingly resorted to taking the legislative route—a slippery slope—to get a grip on the media. Draconian laws that pose a significant threat to the future of journalism have been passed in many countries. In Bangladesh, the much-criticised Digital Security Act continues to loom over us, leading journalists and ordinary citizens to go to great lengths of self-censorship. That there is a lack of respect for media workers became evident on too many occasions in the recent past, including during the road safety movement that rocked the nation last year, when journalists were beaten to a pulp in plain sight. And after such incidents, what is so conspicuous by its absence is the denouncement of attackers by the government and the latter standing up for the rights of journalists. Even the role of the law enforcement has been questionable on many such occasions. This has meant total impunity for those responsible for assaulting journalists, which essentially means giving them a carte blanche to do as they please.
It is thus no surprise that in the World Press Freedom Index 2018, 27 percent of countries on the world map (including Bangladesh) are ominously shaded in red—which stands for a “bad” situation of press freedom—while 35 percent of countries find themselves in the orange-shaded “problematic” zone. Bangladesh, with at least seven unsolved cases of murder of journalists, also came in at the 12th spot in CPJ’s Global Impunity Index 2018 which “spotlights countries where journalists are slain and their killers go free.”
It seems like a futile exercise to hark back to the oft-repeated role that a strong media plays in any democracy, given the growing disdain of the fourth estate the world over, including in Bangladesh. But as citizens who have certain inalienable rights—rights which cannot be taken away from us—we must do more to protect our right to be informed. We simply cannot watch the role of the media fade into oblivion which, I fear, will soon be a reality if injustices against journalists and suppression of the press are left unchecked. As conscious citizens, we must continue to demand justice for journalists and media workers who come under attack simply for reporting the news. And in a society where collusion of business and political interests is at an all-time high, citizens and civil society must be at the frontline of the battle so that the press is allowed to do its job.