In 1991, a group of African newspaper journalists came together in the capital of Namibia to issue the Windhoek Declaration, which asserted that, “[t]he establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation, and for economic development.” The date of the Declaration's adoption, May 3, was subsequently declared as World Press Freedom Day, that was observed in Bangladesh as well as around the world this past week.
Freedom of expression and access to factual and accurate information provided by independent media are foundational to democratic societies. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, freedom of expression includes the right of all individuals “to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Yet the outlook today for the rights of journalists around the world remains grim.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that in 2020, the number of journalists killed in retaliation for their reporting more than doubled, with Mexico and Afghanistan seeing the largest number of killings. According to CPJ, the number of journalists jailed for their reporting in 2020 reached its highest level since the organisation began keeping track, with China, Turkey, and Egypt imprisoning the most reporters last year. Unfortunately, the pandemic has provided a pretext for repressive governments to intensify pressure on independent media. It is exactly in that kind of hostile environment that the exercise of freedom of expression, especially by members of the press, becomes even more crucial in alerting the public to abuses and corruption and in countering dangerous misinformation and disinformation.
At least 247 journalists were reportedly subjected to attacks, harassment, and intimidation in 2020. More than 900 cases were filed under the draconian Digital Security Act (DSA) with nearly 1,000 people charged and 353 detained – many of them journalists. The DSA continues to be used to harass and indefinitely detain journalists, activists and others, resulting in a chilling effect on expression of dissent. In such a situation, it is perhaps not surprising that Bangladesh has slipped one notch in this year's World Press Freedom Index, by Reporters Without Borders, also known as Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF). The country was ranked 152nd out of 180 countries while its position was 151st last year. Even within South Asia, a region that has grown particularly notable for its growing curbs on press freedom, Bangladesh ranked last, behind countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists and media workers have been on the front lines to keep the public informed, at significant risk to their own health. Till April, 48 Bangladeshi journalists had died of the virus, one of the highest tallies in the world. Yet they must remain relentless in their quest to uncover the truth, for any society that fails to appreciate their worth can only be poorer for it.