It is deeply regrettable that the President assented to the Digital Security Act last week. At a time when much concern, all of it justified, had been aroused by the prospect of the law being given conclusive shape, we expected the President to raise his own questions about the measure and seek clarifications and changes from the government. We are distressed that we were left disappointed.
Some of the leading lights of the government have loudly been proclaiming that the Digital Security Act is not aimed at any muzzling of the media. And yet there are some significant sections of the DSA which raise very legitimate questions about the manner in which it might and could and perhaps will be applied against a free working of the media in the country. The Prime Minister has informed us that if journalists do not write anything wrong or false, they will have no reason to fear the new edict.
The point about journalism is not that its practitioners write things that are wrong or false. Journalists write from a belief that what they are putting out in print is based on credible information acquired from numerous sources. Yes, it could be that sometimes reports carried by the media leave many questions unanswered. Some reports could even turn out to be wrong. But once those lapses are spotted and acknowledged, newspapers carry retractions and express their apologies to their readers. There is too the standard procedure of rejoinders being sent by people aggrieved by news reports, which newspapers are morally bound to publish.
The DSA, in clear terms, seeks to put journalism in a straitjacket through making it hard for newsmen to investigate reports of corruption and malfeasance in high places. The harsh measures, which form the core of the DSA, relating to the penalties and the punishment which could be imposed on journalists is a clear deterrent to the growth of purposeful media practices in the country. In simple terms, the law is effectively a twenty four-hour policing of the media by the state. That properly means that rather than acting as a check on an unbridled exercise of authority by the political and bureaucratic segments of the state, journalism will have the state breathing down its shoulder for any ‘transgressions’ that will call for disciplinary measures from the authorities.
We have always been proud of the endless struggles we have waged for democracy. It was such a struggle which led to the emergence of a democratic Bangladesh in 1971. Against such a glorious background, let us say clearly that laws like the Digital Security Act militate against freedom of expression, indeed against the political culture we are heir to.
Let the DSA be withdrawn. If it stays, journalism will wither in Bangladesh. No one will remain to speak truth to power.