International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists: Why must journalists put their lives on the line?

When Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi were murdered, I was an oblivious 16-year-old. Politics, the state machinery, censorship, free speech—none of these issues occupied space in my mind. I only vaguely remember the incident making headlines for a good couple of days, and how the then home minister had vowed to catch the killers in 48 hours. Then, one day, it stopped being the talk of the town, and I carried on with my life.

Those 48 hours eventually turned into thousands of days, hundreds of weeks, and 11 years. I’m now 28 years old and, through a strange turn of events, a journalist. Now, my mind is full of all the injustices in the world, all the machinations of states, all the rights that are infringed upon. And I face a grim reality: journalists, who fight for people’s rights, seldom enjoy justice themselves.

According to Unesco, one journalist has been killed every four days over the past decade around the world, with several slain in front of their family members, including their children. The prospect of getting justice is slim, as nine out of 10 killings go unpunished. While death is the ultimate price to pay for this job, journalists also face all kinds of abuses, such as physical and mental torture, harassment of family members, threats to life, and trumped-up charges.

While the laws themselves are frightening, what’s even more alarming is the lightning speed in which some of these cases are registered and the way people are detained arbitrarily, and in some cases even ‘disappeared.’

Bangladesh has a hostile environment for journalists, according to the International Press Institute. Out of 180 countries, Reporters Without Borders ranked Bangladesh 163rd in its 2023 Press Freedom Index. This shouldn’t be surprising, given the deluge of reports coming out every few days of journalists getting beaten up in clashes, being picked up and put behind bars, or even hacked to death. According to Ain o Salish Kendra, as many as 216 journalists were tortured and harassed, and one killed, in the first nine months of this year.

Such crimes against journalists do not happen in a vacuum. Our government, regardless of the party in power, has always been hostile towards journalists. Historically, this country has suffered from an absence of accountability and transparency, and it is the journalists’ job to hold those in power accountable. Herein lies a conflict immemorial. So, the government has devised ways to thwart journalistic efforts: through legal instruments, law enforcers and, when needed, the student wings of political parties.

The authorities may tout the Cyber Security Act (CSA), Digital Security Act (DSA), ICT Act, and Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulation Act—all enacted in the run-up to one national election or the other—as laws to ensure regulation and security, but we have all seen how they are really used. Journalists, more so than opposition politicians, have been the main victims of the DSA (now replaced with the CSA), with more than 330 cases filed against them since the law was introduced in 2018. Journalists were usually charged under the non-bailable sections of the act, which led to the accused rotting in custody and, in many instances, facing abuse. Although in the CSA some sections are now bailable and punishment has been reduced in a few cases, experts have given their consensus: it is just as oppressive as the DSA.

No level of concerns—from regular citizens to local experts, from rights organisations to even the UN—has been able to convince the government to repeal such draconian laws. It always has its stock of responses ready to counter these concerns: “External entities should not interfere in our internal matters,” or “We have to protect the country’s image,” or “Journalists must not spread misinformation and propaganda.”

While the laws themselves are frightening, what’s even more alarming is the lightning speed in which some of these cases are registered and the way people are detained arbitrarily, and in some cases even “disappeared.” Look at what the Savar correspondent of Prothom Alo, Samsuzzaman Shams, had to face in March. Law enforcers in plainclothes essentially abducted Shams from his home before dawn, with no warrant, and without telling him or his family what was happening or where he was being taken. Shams was kept confined for 30 hours and was then shown arrested under the DSA. Even those accused of heinous crimes don’t deserve to be treated in such an inhumane manner.

Aside from these more “sophisticated” forms of suppression, there’s always the primitive: physical violence. And the student wings of political parties have a staggering track record of “delivering lessons.” Last month, BCL activists reportedly left Mosharraf Shah, a Prothom Alo correspondent, bloody and bruised for reporting on clashes between two of its factions. A month before that, BCL activists in Patuakhali attacked a journalist for publishing a report allegedly against the unit’s president. I believe there’s at least one event of the like each month.

Just like the government, I am also concerned about the image of our country. Looking at all these incidents, I wonder: how have they affected our image?

Working at my safe and comfortable office desk, I sometimes wonder about the reporters who are paid pennies for putting their lives on the line. Why did Golam Rabbani Nadim take the risk of publishing reports against a UP chairman? There’s little to no monetary reward for doing so; only a sense of justice prevailing. Far from being rewarded, Nadim had to pay a price with his life. Has justice prevailed?

It’s a miracle how five years in journalism hasn’t beaten all the optimism out of me. Surely, the never-ending deadline extensions to submit the probe report of Sagar-Runi case, the latest being the 104th extension, should make anyone feel dejected. And if even that doesn’t do it, the arbitrary detentions at the dead of night must make one feel hopeless.

And yet, despite the fact that with each keystroke, I think of whether the next phrase will land me in trouble, I’m still in this profession. Meeting so many journalists all this time, those spending whole days in the field, those in constant search for corruption, those risking their safety and well-being, I’ve come to a conclusion: journalists don’t want to be heroes or martyrs, they just want a better world. And we don’t deserve to be tortured, maimed, and killed for that.

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