Wednesday, 29 March, 2023

Straight Talk

Freedom of Expression is not license to disregard law

  • Abdul Mannan
  • 25th February, 2023 03:11:01 PM
  • Print news

It is true freedom of expression is an inalienable universal human right but the right also has to be exercised honouring the law of the country. Every country has its own law as to what is freedom of expression is and what is not. Again it is also true that often a country may put an embargo on certain expression or reports in the interest of general public and safety and security of the country. There are ample examples that can be cited from around the world where such freedoms were curtailed or stalled temporarily. UN Declaration of Human Rights in its Article 19 also mentions about the right, so does the Constitution of Bangladesh in its Article 39 which guarantees ‘Freedom of thought and conscience’ but also clearly mentions that this right is ‘subject to any reasonable restrictions imposed by law in the interest of security of State, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or to freedom of court defamation or incitement to an offence (May 5-6, 2013, the Hefazat mayhem in Dhaka is an example).

At regular intervals some self-styled defenders of human rights locally or internationally conveniently raise hue and cry accusing Bangladesh or other countries in their words ‘curtailing freedom of speech or crack down  on free  media’ disregarding the fact that freedom of speech is not a license to disregard the law of that country. In the recent times the ‘Dainik Dinkal’ a daily vernacular newspaper, known as the mouthpiece of Bangladesh’s one of the main political parties, BNP, has been shut down by the government and some prestigious international media like the Guardian of London mentioned that this newspaper was the only newspaper that criticized the rule of Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. (Bangladesh shuts down main opposition newspaper, AFP, 20 February 2023).  Nothing could be far from the truth and that is more painful when it comes from such print or electronic media like Al-Jazeera (they also reported the case using same wordings) which considers itself as the guardian angel of defender of democracy and freedom of speech but often covertly or overtly supports most of the authoritarian rulers in most of the Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries. They often rush to support governments in the West when they decide to dismantle governments in other countries through conspiracies, intrigue and falsehood in the name of exporting democracy. The case of Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, earlier Iran, Indonesia, Chile and many other countries are cases on record.

Now, coming back to freedom of expression, it must be appreciated that media in Bangladesh enjoys much more freedom of expression than many countries in the region or even some countries of the West. The cases of corruption bogey hatched by the World Bank regarding the financing of Padma Bridge were blown out of proportion by at least two mainstream national dailies of Bangladesh. They not only fabricated the corruption bogey but also expressed and created some of their own which are now on record. Both even wrote special commentaries on this concocted issue. The government of Sheikh Hasina never interfered with the activities of these publications or even protested the published fabrications. At least one of these publications regularly and unethically publishes stories to embarrass the current government. On last 11 February while the followers of BNP and their allies set fire to 12 motorcycles of Awami League workers while they were in a peaceful rally in Sirajganj is a case that needs to be mentioned. The BNP and their allies were supposed to take out a procession on a different route. But they changed their route and deliberately clashed with the Awami League workers and set fire to these motorcycles. The news was published in the online version of this publication. But next day in the print version of the same publication it  published a photograph where it was shown that a group of Awami League workers are beating few BNP workers. Such intentional misrepresentation of facts is a regular phenomenon of few print media in this country. In comparison the electronic media have been a bit more objective.

Coming back to Dainik Dinkal, it was never shut down because it was critical of current government’s activities but for grossly flouting the existing Printing and Publication Act 1973, of the country. Dainik Dinkal, mentioned by some of the western media, was a mouthpiece of BNP. Now for any practical purpose a newspaper should not become a ‘mouthpiece’ of any political party at least theoretically. If this simple ethical standard is not adhered to then the newspaper ceases to be a newspaper, it becomes a pamphlet of a particular political party. Tarique Rahman, the eldest son of Begum Zia, now the Chairman of BNP, convicted for life term imprisonment by the Apex Court of Law of Bangladesh for money laundering, arms smuggling and conspiring to assassinate Sheikh Hasina on 21 August 2004 is currently absconding in the eye of law was the publisher of Dainik Dinkal. Section 11 of the Printing and Publication Act clearly mentions ‘if at any time the printer or the publisher who has made a declaration under section 7 (Declaration of the printer and publisher) leaves Bangladesh the declaration shall become null and void. The Section also mentions ‘the absence of the printer or the publisher from Bangladesh be for a period not exceeding six months.’ Tarique left the country in March of 2007 and have been living in London with his family and he failed to inform the proper authorities of his absence or hand over his responsibility as a publisher to another person following the proper procedures as mentioned in the law. Moreover in the meantime he has surrendered his Bangladeshi passport and got British citizenship.

Dainik Dinkal got its declaration on 16 April 2001 and continued its publication even during the rule of the current government, sometimes virtual and at times as print version. BNP fell from grace after the 1/11 government took over and expectedly the publication became erratic. After Tarique Rahman’s conviction the paper’s official address and the address of the press where it was printed from were also changed without the due permission from the proper authorities, in this case the District Magistrate of Dhaka. On 7 October 2019 the Film and Publication Directorate of the Government, as authorized by the law, issued a show cause notice to the publisher enquiring about the failure as to why the responsibility of publication of Dainik Dinkal was not handed over to another person on time as per the legal obligations as the original publisher has been residing outside Bangladesh for a long period and he has been convicted for criminal offenses in the country. The respondent, in this case Tarique Rahman,  failed to provide any sort of reply to the enquiry and subsequently as per the provisions of the Printing Press and Publication Act of 1973 the District Magistrate cancelled   the declaration of Dainik Dinkal against which the Editor of the daily Dr. Rizwan Siddiqui filed a petition in the Press Council (having jurisdiction as that of the High Court of the country) protesting the action of the District Magistrate on 29 December 2022 mentioning that Tarique Rahman on 9 August 2016 (long after the allowed period under the law was over) handed over his responsibility as publisher to one Ahmed Azam Khan. The petitioner claimed that the decision to hand over the responsibility of the publisher was attested by the Bangladesh High Commission in London but no such copy of the document was ever  produced to the authorities even after repeated requests to do so. Press Council fixed 10 January 2023 to hear the case and also instructed the District Magistrate to respond to the appeal by the defendant which was duly done.  The defendant requested for a two months’ time to respond to the District Magistrate’s notice. The District Magistrate extended the time till 7 February and also permitted the continuation of the aforesaid daily during this time.

On the day of hearing of the appeal the Dainik Dinkal (defendant) was represented by Ahmed Azam Khan and Advocate Joynal Abedin Faruk. Sitting in the bench was a two member bench of the Press Council led by the Chairman of the Press Council Justice Nizamul Haque Nasim and senior journalist Iqbal Siobhan Chowdhury. The Press Council Appeal Board heard the case in details, took into cognizance of all the concerned parties’arguments and rationale and on 19 February 2023 announced the judgment that the closure the Daily Dinkal was done as per the existing law of the country and this was simply a legal procedure and thus the appeal has been made without any legal standing and thus denied. The judgment also mentioned that the Dainik Dinkal authorities flouted all the legal bindings of the Printing Press and Publication Act of 1973 (Declaration and Registration). It is evident that the cancellation of the declaration was not done because it was simply a mouthpiece of the main opposition party BNP as reported in some foreign media, including the prestigious British Daily the Guardian. It must also be remembered that the judgment of the Press Council is not the end of the journey for Dainik Dinkal. It can still file an appeal before the Apex Court of the country challenging the judgment of the Press Council. If Tarique Rahman and others involved with the publication of the Dainik Dinkal respected the law of the country the matter would not have reached upto this stage.

The Dinkal episode is not the first case of its kind. Earlier few other dailies were shut down for disregarding the bindings of the Printing and Publication Act of 1973. This even included a daily edited by a close associate of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ABM Musa. No one should consider himself above the law. Unfortunately sometimes even international agencies and bodies like Reporters Without Borders also come to conclusions based on fabricated, half-truth   or incomplete information. In the recent times the UK based Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) and US based Freedom House acknowledged that in the global index of Press Freedom the performance of Bangladesh has shown marked improvement.

Concerned people expect more responsible reports from prestigious western or foreign media based on facts, law of the land and not influenced by any third party with hidden agenda to demean a government or its institutions at any time. Freedom of expression is not a license to spread fabricated news based on unfounded sources or heresy. Let good sense prevail.

(The writer is an analyst and a commentator)

Source: Sun Editorial