By Taj Hashmi
16 March, 2014
Despite the Information Minister Hasan ul Haq Inu’s claims that there is absolute press freedom and freedom of expression in Bangladesh, we believe he is not telling the whole truth. However, even if the Minister is right – which he is not – we may raise the question if the freedom of expression alone guarantees freedom, and democracy. Do people in the democratic countries enjoy democracy and freedom only because of the freedom of expression? We do not think so. It is the other way around.
There is nothing permanent about the global index of democracy and freedom. A democratic country with maximum rights, privileges and freedom can turn authoritarian, and vice versa. Bangladesh also experiences relatively more or less democracy and freedom, from time to time. Democracy and freedom in Bangladesh during the last five years are going through periods of crises and uncertainties.
Newspapers get closed on a regular basis since 1975; editors and reporters get arrested, threatened by ruling party goons and law enforcers, and even killed under mysterious circumstances. The killing of Sagar-Runi may be cited as an example. Mahmud ur Rahman, the editor of the Amar Desh – is in custody for no valid reasons, and was recently tortured in prison, more inhumanely than what inmates in the Guantanamo Bay Prison experience at the hands of their American captors. Thus, the Information Minister has no moral reason to resort to fabrications, which people do not believe at all.
Before we address the issue, if freedom of expression guarantees freedom, we may look at the Freedom House’s latest Index of Freedom in the world in 2014. It indicates that out of 195 countries, 88 enjoy most freedom, 59 some freedom and 48 enjoy very little freedom, and 10 of them are among the “Worst of the Worst” in this regard. Although six of the 10 worst countries with regard to freedom are Muslim-majority countries, including Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan and Syria, Bangladesh is not one of them. The Information Minister may relish this piece of information, but we have no reasons to be complacent as the 2014 Index of Freedom points toward a regression with regard to the state of freedom in Bangladesh.
We know there are ups and downs in the indices of freedom across the world. However, it is unbelievable but true that the World Press Freedom Index of 2014 indicates that while Finland is Number One with regard to the freedom of the press, Bangladesh stands at 146th, behind Myanmar, Uganda, Burundi, Central African Republic, Nigeria, Libya, Zimbabwe, Qatar, Nepal, South Sudan, and even Afghanistan. In the backdrop of the latest Freedom House findings, and the World Press Freedom Index of 2014, it appears that the Information Minister is simply misinforming everyone by his boastful remarks that Bangladesh enjoys absolute freedom of the press and expression.
The abysmal performance of Bangladesh in the arenas of freedom and human rights is anything to brag about. We know the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the IT Revolution signalled the beginning of almost a total “New World Order” (not in the sense George H.W. Bush first used the expression in 1991), the wind of freedom and democracy started blowing so strongly that Francis Fukuyama was totally carried away and came up with his half-baked theory of the “End of History” or the end of autocracy in the East and West.
Although the whole world has not become free and democratic after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of Soviet Union, people in undemocratic countries like Afghanistan, Libya, Myanmar, Nigeria, Qatar, South Sudan and even Zimbabwe have access to information, and some have relatively free press, freer than Bangladesh. Thanks to the free press, people in Bangladesh know about the rampant corruption of ruling party and opposition politicians, vote rigging and voter-less farcical elections, the reality behind the so-called “crossfire” or “gun battles”, which are state-sponsored extra-judicial killings of criminals and innocent people, and about rich-and-powerful people’s extra-marital affairs and scandals.
Then again, we may cynically raise the question: “So What?” We know at the end of the day, free press does not necessarily guarantee freedom and democracy, let alone human rights and dignity. We must not lose sight of the fact that the IT Revolution has changed methods of autocratic rule. Now everything is transparent, or difficult to hide secrets for long. So, autocrats no longer care to hide facts – the North Korean regime may be the only exception in this regard – they rather manipulate the media and make the opposition parties ineffective and powerless by mass arrests of leaders, and random and selective, public and secret killing of opposition supporters. This type of “autocratic democracy” has become normative in the Third World, where state-sponsored terror and relatively free media live side by side. Bangladesh is no exception in this regard.
Free press is irrelevant without a free judiciary, and accountability of the government. Unless political, business and professional elites, and government officials develop some ethical sense, self-respect, and most importantly, learn what is shame in private and public domains, there is no way out of the quagmire. Shamelessness, as exemplified by most Bangladeshis at every level is at the roots of the problem of corruption and autocracy. Unless people are driven to their senses by the notions of shame and high ethical values – which are still very weak and practically non-existent in Bangladesh – only a free media will not stop Bangladesh from heading towards more chaos, conflict and anarchy.
Taj Hashmi teaches security studies at Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee. His latest book, Global Jihad and America: The Hundred-Year War Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan (Sage, 2014) is forthcoming.