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Media Asia

ISSN: 0129-6612 (Print) 2377-6277 (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rmea20

Media, Democracy and Human Rights

Amanullah Khan

To cite this article: Amanullah Khan (2006) Media, Democracy and Human Rights, Media Asia,
33:3-4, 162-165, DOI: 10.1080/01296612.2006.11726836

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01296612.2006.11726836

Published online: 20 May 2016.

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VIEWPOINT
Media, Democracy and Human Rights
A Bangladesh Perspective

AMANULLAH KHAN
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Democracy and human rights: Two sides of possible investment in human capital and an insurance of
the same coin the future which is every individual’s birthright.

A democratic government is one run by the elected


representatives of the people at various levels from the The press as the fourth estate
local/municipal level to the central/national level which seek
to deliver on the promises made to the electorates as well as A free and dynamic press comprises the most distinguishing
fulfil national aspirations. In order for democracy to survive feature of a democratic order that sets it apart from other
and succeed, the state should have in place institutional forms of government. There is tremendous potentiality and
checks and balances, and the government should be possibility to harness media for the service of humanity at
made fully answerable and accountable to the public for large. Media not only acts as a catalytic agent but is also an
the actions taken by it in the people’s name. Democratic ally and partner with a stake in the process of democratisation
government representing the rule of the majority, though and diffusion of human rights. In view of the distinct place
not the perfect system, has stood the test of time and is it occupies in the individual, community, collective and
universally acknowledged as the best form of government. national life, the media consisting of newspapers, news
The main goal pursued by the representative government, magazines, radio, television and the new media has rightly
symbolising democracy is to create a congenial milieu been called the fourth estate. In Bangladesh, the media
in which the citizens of a state are able to enjoy freely also acts as a kind of second parliament. Aggrieved people
the fundamental and human rights which are guaranteed often go to the press clubs to ventilate their grievances and
by the nation’s constitution and enforceable by its laws. seek redress. Print and electronic media regularly carry
Instead of withholding human rights, a democratically the stories of complaints and cover extensively the plight
ruled state should concede the human rights due to its of the victims.
citizens pursuant to its constitutional, legal, moral and
international obligations under international treaties
ratified by the member state. Human rights empower and Constant vigilance price of democracy
illumine a person, help one to discover one’s identity and Democracy and human rights cannot be taken for granted
true self and shape one’s destiny. Included in the charter and are never handed on a plate. They have to be fought
of human rights are the freedom of speech and expression, for and won. Constant vigilance is said to be the price
and the right to acquire information and knowledge. These of democracy. The media as a watchdog keeps an eye
constitute the basic natural rights inherent in the attributes and vigil on developments on these fronts. It turns its
of a person that endow one with a will and moral volition, spotlight to oversee that democracy is alive, healthy and
and help preserve human sanctity and sanity. Making human kicking, and the citizens are not deprived of the human
rights accessible to the common people represents the best rights guaranteed by the nation’s constitution and laws.
The local media played a commendable part before and
during the liberation movement of Bangladesh in 1971 by
Amanullah Khan is the Chairman of United News of boldly ignoring press censorships imposed by the Pakistan
Bangladesh, Dhaka. authority and, when necessary, going underground to inspire

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VIEWPOINT

and motivate freedom fighters, and keep the spirit and morale Democracy and human rights top national
of the Bengalis high. The media’s role in building post- agenda
independent Bangladesh has also won wide acclaim.
Of late, commitment to democracy and human-rights
concerns have moved up to the top of the agenda of all
Challenges to good governance and human nations pursuing the ideals of public weal. Bangladesh is a
rights democratic state so fostering and improving human-rights
concepts and practices deserve a high priority and the utmost
Democracy, to be meaningful, should address such core consideration while formulating its policy imperatives. In
issues as the rule of law, justice and good governance that view of public expectations, the media in Bangladesh as
would pave the way for the unrestrained exercise of human elsewhere have an onerous responsibility to promote and
rights. The main challenges to instituting good governance advance the cause of human rights by projecting these issues
and setting human-rights agenda in Bangladesh have been in its news and investigative reports. The democratic process
identified as (a) forming an independent and effective designed to deliver common good can never succeed or
anti-corruption commission; (b) constituting the national be sustained in a situation where human rights and liberty
human-rights commission; (c) separation of judiciary from have been suspended or banished from the body politic and
the executive; (d) appointment of a national ombudsman; the national consciousness. Human rights lay at the heart
and (e) promotion of local government institutions. In of democracy, nourishing and renewing its vital forces. As
addition, tightening the law-and-order situation, alleviating emphasised earlier, it is these rights that give human beings
poverty, providing basic services and amenities of life their dignity, worth and self-respect as individuals, their
such as food, clothes, shelter, healthcare, education and
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freedom of thought and action, and offer them a range of


protecting consumers’ rights are some of the major areas opportunities and choices within the limits of the nation’s
requiring urgent attention to enable the ordinary citizens resources. In the absence of these rights, development of
of Bangladesh to reap the benefits of human rights. The human potential and creativity and the growth of societies
Bangladesh media is adequately armed and uniquely placed will be stifled, the progress of nations and, eventually,
to launch a blaze of publicity and advocacy campaigns on the march of civilisation will ground to a halt with the
these issues and exert pressure on policy makers, politicians, disastrous consequence that the built-in safeguards that
bureaucrats and other players to introduce reforms and hold the society together may disintegrate, drifting the
changes necessary to overcome the impediments and social structure into chaos and anarchy.
achieve the desired objective of translating human rights
from pure concepts into concrete realities for the common
man at the grassroots. UDHR vis-à-vis Bangladesh Constitution
Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Universal
Media a potent tool in the defence of Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which proclaims
that there are certain specified inalienable and unassailable
democracy and human rights rights to which every human being is entitled by birth,
Media’s basic functions, viz. to inform, educate and was adopted on 10 December 1948. Article 19 of the
entertain its consumers/users may be suitably channelled Declaration which is of relevance to freedom of expression
and directed to serve the ends of a democratic and and media lays down that: “Everyone has the right to
pluralistic society. Undeniably, the media are reckoned freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes
to be the best, most effective and potent tool available freedom to hold opinions without interference and to
to educate and sensitise the public and heighten mass seek, receive and impart information and ideas through
awareness about what democracy and human rights stand any media and regardless of frontiers.” As a signatory to
for and what they mean to the lives of the ordinary people. this groundbreaking charter of human rights and other
The media also contribute to deepening and enhancing international instruments/conventions that followed it,
human-rights perceptions as well as protecting, defending Bangladesh is bound to uphold and confer on its citizens
and safeguarding democracy and human rights when they an array of rights and freedoms specifically incorporated
are under threat or attack. in these documents. Articles 27 to 43 of the Bangladesh
The routine news stories and in-depth investigative Constitution guarantee many of these rights as fundamental
reports critically examining the performance of democratic rights, for example, protection of right to life and personal
institutions and laying bare the cases of human-rights liberty; freedom of thought, conscience and speech and
abuses go a long way towards strengthening democracy press freedom; and freedom of movement, assembly and
and improving the human-rights situation on the ground. In association, all of which are legally enforceable while some
fact, the more prominence and coverage such issues receive others set out in Articles 9 to 25, for example, democracy
in the media, the greater will be the positive impact on the and human rights, health, education, employment and basic
society. There are better chances of straightening up human necessities form the core of fundamental principles of state
right records by giving voice to the voiceless who can policy being pursued which, however, cannot be enforced
stand up for their rights and assert them. The struggle for by law. It is the common aspiration of every Bangladeshi
democratisation will also get a boost following publication citizen that the supremacy of the rule of law prevails and
of illuminating accounts on the subject. good governance instituted in full measure in Bangladesh to

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MEDIA ASIA, VOL 33 NO 3 & 4, 2006

enable human rights to be enjoyed freely by every national and wrath. Likewise, the Official Secrets Act, which shields
within a democratic set-up, without let or hindrance. the government from the prying eyes of the press, shrouds
the bureaucracy in a cloak of secrecy and chokes the free
flow of information from the government departments to the
Draconian press laws: Institutional failures people, is totally incompatible with the concept of open and
Unfortunately, notwithstanding the constitutional transparent government in a functioning democracy. This
guarantees and the binding international covenants, some archaic and obsolete Act should be scrapped and replaced
fundamental rights are being flouted with impunity and by the Freedom of Information Act so that the public get an
there is a rising trend of breaches of human rights in inside view of what goes on in the government offices. The
Bangladesh. A number of draconian laws and regulations Bangladesh Press Council is in need of being transformed
appear in the statute book that contravene the spirit of the into a powerful, effective and independent institution until
constitution and severely undermine human rights, liberty the regime of self-regulation of journalists can be adopted
and freedom. Institutional checks and balances including and a press complaints commission installed. All these
accountability that exist in Bangladesh democracy do not and other necessary legal measures should be instituted as
often operate as effectively and satisfactorily as they should part of overall legal reforms agenda designed to achieve
and do sometimes fail due to the meddling and interference the cherished press freedom as well as to ensure a greater
by the government and vested interest groups that erode measure of human rights in general. Bangladesh should
democracy. The antidote to this affliction is reinforcing follow the axiom that “No law shall be passed abridging
and institutionalising democracy in which the press has a freedom of the press”, the press freedom being the fountain-
definite part to play. head of many other rights and freedoms.
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The oppressive and restrictive laws, some of which have


been handed down as legacies of Bangladesh’s colonial
Assault on journalists
past, include the Official Secrets Act 1923, the provisions
of the Code of Criminal Procedure 1898 (as amended in In recent times, journalists in Bangladesh have been
1991), Contempt of Courts Act 1926, Special Powers Act subjected to a series of intimidation, threats and violent
1974 and other similar draconian Acts. These pieces of assaults; sometimes inflicting in their persons grave physical
legislation concede sweeping powers to the government and injuries and even causing their deaths as reprisals for their
the administrative hierarchy including the law-enforcing bold and courageous reporting about the perpetrators’
agency acting under government’s instructions and sway. evil ways. Since attacks of such a nature have become
While the freedom of speech and expression and press rather commonplace in Bangladesh, the country has been
freedom are distinctly and separately enshrined in the classified by the New York-based Committee to Protect
Bangladesh Constitution under Articles 39(2)(a) and Journalists (CPJ) as an insecure and dangerous place for
39(2)(b) subject to reasonable restrictions imposed by law, journalists. According to a survey report published by
the aforementioned statutes curtail press freedom, block Mass-Line Media Centre (MMC), Dhaka, Bangladesh, in
free flow of information and take away the rights of the 2005 alone, three journalists including a daily newspaper
people to information to a perceptible degree. It should be editor were killed, 200 journalists received threats out of
borne in mind that the freedom of speech and expression, which 164 were death threats, 133 came under physical
a major and vital right, represents the source from which attacks and 11 were arrested. Unless protection and safety
numerous other rights flow, and which makes it possible of journalists can be ensured and the attackers/assassins
for other rights to be asserted, free press being the vehicle brought to book, press freedom will remain hostage in the
for freedom of speech and expression. hands of the godfathers who are ready to go to any length
in their sinister bids to throttle the press and conceal the
truth about them.
Criminal suits brought for defamation:
Need for legal reforms
Journalists’ crusade against human-rights
Under the penal code in force in Bangladesh, defamation
violations
against the journalists in addition to being a civil offence
is also considered a criminal offence. As a result, criminal Apart from the onslaughts on the press, which the journalists
suits are filed in the court covering these cases with warrants have to contend with and fight in their own backyard, it is
of arrests issued against the concerned journalists who are their moral duty to empathise with the victims of human
produced before the court, often handcuffed as though they right violations who belong mostly to the marginalised
are abominable criminals. This medieval law hangs as a section of the society, viz the women, children, the poor
Damocles sword over the heads of journalists ready to strike and the handicapped. Included in the rather long catalogue
down those who dare to expose and bring to the public view of cases involving infringement of human rights that occur
the hidden and unknown misdeeds and malpractices of those almost routinely and continue unabated in Bangladesh are
in high positions of trust, power and pelf. In order for the violence against and suppression of women, child abuse,
press freedom to be exercised without being hamstrung, child labour, trafficking of women and children, police
there has been a constant clamour to modify this crude and atrocities, arbitrary arrests and arrests without warrants,
repressive law to spare the journalists its terrible vengeance illegal detentions for long periods without trials, torture in

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VIEWPOINT

custody or in prison cells, extrajudicial killings, custodial and potential weapon to wage an unrelenting war on the
deaths, forced extraction of confessions, denial of fair violators of human rights and detractors of democracy.
trials, sub-human prison conditions, harassment and torture Media persons would do well to use that tool wisely,
of political opponents and exploitation of and extortion judiciously and discreetly for the good of the society.
from the underprivileged by the privileged class. Flawed
criminal justice system, slow dispensation of justice, limited
access of the poor to legal aid, generally corrupt and inept Potential role and future of media in
bureaucracy and lack of transparency and accountability Bangladesh
at most levels of the society contribute to trivialisation of The media as the defender of democracy and human
human rights in Bangladesh. These represent the recurring rights should fully gear and equip itself to play a unique
themes on which the reporters should focus their attention role in Bangladesh. Such a role requires the media to be a
more closely and carefully while dealing with the incidents proactive partner in consolidating the democratic order in
of human-rights transgressions in their reports. As a result of Bangladesh as envisioned by its veteran leaders, a country
more frequent and probing accounts on the state of human whose bulwark and main strength should lay in transparency,
rights that would come under more intense public scrutiny, openness and free dissemination of information, news
the incidents of human right breaches would come down and analyses of facts on a massive scale produced by the
and the democratic profile of Bangladesh would go up. mass media which are ready to embrace the state of the
Pressmen in Bangladesh continue to pay a high price art communication technology in a highly competitive
for telling the truth targeted by those who are hurt by the environment. An unfettered, dynamic and responsible
revelations in the press. Notwithstanding their professional press which is a sine qua non for fortifying democracy
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hazards of enormous proportions, Bangladesh journalists and preserving human rights should prepare Bangladesh
are determined and committed enough to face the ordeal. to take up the formidable challenge in its quest for human
Furthermore, despite considerable limitation imposed by development and national prosperity that will filter down
law, the media in Bangladesh has at its disposal a powerful to the bottom layer of the society.

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