Ensuring press freedom for democracy

TODAY, the International Day of Democracy is celebrated with special emphasis on media freedom. It primarily marks the importance of media freedom for democracy, peace and the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.

There are essential links between democracy and human rights. The link between democracy and human rights is defined in Article 21(3) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states: “The will of the people is the basis of the authority of government ; this will shall be expressed in genuine periodic elections by universal and equal suffrage held by secret ballot or by equivalent free vote procedures.

The rights enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and subsequent human rights instruments aimed at protecting rights groups, including indigenous peoples, minorities, persons with disabilities and others, are equally essential for democracy because they guarantee a fair distribution of wealth, as well as equality and equity.

However, media personnel around the world face obstacles when gathering information. Earlier this month, journalist Rajib Noor, special correspondent for bdnews24.com, was attacked while visiting the home of Ramnath Biswas, the man who once cycled around the world. It was reported in the newspapers and different journalists’ associations protested the incident.

During the Covid outbreak, the question of how best to counter harmful speech while protecting freedom of expression has come to the fore again in Bangladesh. Extensive efforts to eliminate misinformation or disinformation can result in deliberate or unintentional censorship, undermining public trust. The most effective response is to provide accurate, clear, and evidence-based information from sources people trust.

The pandemic, however, has failed to stop the pervasive corruption. Globally and locally, an increasing number of cases of corruption have been reported. For countries with relatively weaker healthcare systems, the novel coronavirus has brought the system to the brink of collapse. Not only have they struggled to contain the infection rate of the pandemic, but they have also experienced the disruption of other vital health services.

In Bangladesh, the issue of corruption in the health sector has become a major public concern. Corrupt practices have long been tolerated in the health sector, both in service delivery and in political decision-making. Procurement and procurement processes are controlled by a section of corrupt vendors with political ties. Relatively junior officials also participated in and engaged in various corrupt activities, including theft and embezzlement of relief materials.

A study by Transparency International Bangladesh found that while receiving care from public and private hospitals during the pandemic, 22.2% of service recipients experienced different irregularities and corruption. Irregularities included the additional burden of fees, negligence by medical staff, delays in service and non-cooperation. Another recent TIB report titled “Corruption in Service Sectors: National Household Survey 2021 also revealed a significant increase in corruption during the pandemic”. Around 71% of responding households said they had experienced one or more forms of corruption in 2021, up from 66.5% in the 2017 household survey. The survey results show that the cost of bribes has increased significantly in 2021. Other forms of corruption have also plagued the service sector, as the overall figure shows a significant increase in all forms of corruption.

The media has played a vital role in exposing some corruption issues during the pandemic. As a result, journalists have also faced various obstacles from different interest groups. Instead of taking initiatives to ensure media freedom in Bangladesh, the government has been considering new laws that will further restrict press freedom. Journalists’ associations have raised concerns about bills such as the “regulation of digital platforms, social media and over-the-top platforms” and the proposed “data protection law”. The government must take their concerns seriously because without freedom of the press, democracy cannot flourish.

Md Shahnur Rahman is a researcher on governance, development and corruption issues

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