May 26, 2020
New Delhi, India
The South Asia Media Defenders Network (SAMDEN) today cited detention of media professionals in Bangladesh, attacks on journalists in the Punjab, and the dismissal of a pregnant reporter in Assam state as part of a pattern of official and corporate arbitrariness against media in the region.
In Bangladesh, SAMDEN noted that the government of Sheikh Hasina Wajed has used the controversial Digital Security Act (DSA), passed in 2018 amid opposition from national, international media and rights groups, to arrest or charge at least 20 journalists over the past month. In one case, a senior journalist vanished in March after a politician from the governing Awami League party filed a criminal defamation case against him.
The reporter mysteriously turned up at the India-Bangladesh border nearly two months later and was slapped with three cases under the DSA while senior editor, Matiur Rahman Choudhury of Manabzamin also is accused in the case.
SAMDEN underlining the spate of cases against journalists and media professionals, regards this as a clear and present danger to freedom of the media there and calls on the Sheikh Hasina government to free the arrested journalists, respect media rights and freedom and urges media associations worldwide to come out in support of the beleaguered media.
“During a pandemic, a jail is the last place for a person to be, especially media professionals who are most needed at this time to provide factual, independent critical information to the public and to government as well as fearless reporting,” the Network said in a statement.
It recalled the arrest and detention of the celebrated international photographer Shahidul Alam who was held for 100 days in 2018 for a Facebook post and a television interview that the national government had deemed offensive.
Pakistani editor and publisher of the Jang Group, Mir Shakilur Rahman completes two months in jail this month. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) last week released video footage and photos of jail official presenting him a small bouquet of flowers from Director-General NAB. This violates the globally accepted codes of conduct to protect people under investigation or in prison from the public eye. SAMDEN condemns this breach of privacy.
Meanwhile in India, credible accounts speak of the police beating a journalist in Chandigarh, Punjab, as well as a raft of cases filed against media workers on a range of grounds in different jurisdictions during the lockdown. These range from talking about the Coronavirus on the phone in the Andaman and Nicobar islands to reporting that a minister in the Punjab was taking advice from astrologers.
In the Chandigarh case, SAMDEN notes that the police leadership suspended the two officials accused by Major Singh Punjabi of beating him on May 22 and urges the filing of an First Information Report (FIR) against the officers. On the same day, a reporter from Punjabi Jagran was charged with broad sections of law such as obscenity, disobeying a public official and making statements which “incite the commission of an offence” for writing that a local Indian National Congress party minister was following the advice of astrologers.
In the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the administration in Sitapur district filed a FIR against Ravindra Saxena, a journalist from a news portal for a video report in Today-24 which quoted residents of a quarantine centre that they had been served bad food. In Gujarat, editor of Face of Nation news website, Dhaval Patel was arrested and charged with sedition for publishing a report alleging that the state’s chief minister may be replaced for mishandling the COVID-19 response.
These incidents follow FIRs against journalists in as many as four other jurisdictions since the lockdown began two months ago.
SAMDEN also supports the journalist Ranjita Rabha from Assam state who says she was forced to resign by Prag News as the organization said it had no policy of maternity leave for employees.
“We back other organisations which have condemned the disregard of human rights and note that Ms Rabha was three months pregnant when the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown was imposed, demand her reinstatement as well as a pro-active rights policy for women employees and all staff irrespective of gender in Prag News and other news organizations,” said Sanjoy Hazarika, SAMDEN’s co-convener.
These incidents raise concerns over the future of the media industry which has been battered on three fronts: concerns about health safety at a time of being an “essential service” on the frontline of the crisis; job insecurity in the light of wage cuts and dismissals as the media industry takes a hit during COVID-19, and physical intimidation and arbitrariness facing media workers internationally.
SAMDEN, founded in 2017 and anchored in the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), has five co-conveners including Hazarika and a membership of over 60 media professionals across South Asia. The other conveners are Kanak Mani Dixit, founding editor, Himal South Asian; Mahfuz Anam, editor, The Daily Star, Dhaka; Kumar Lopez, Executive Director, the Sri Lanka Press Institute, and Beena Sarwar, Boston-based journalist, film maker and media teacher.
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