October 26, 2022
DHAKA – In what is perhaps its most powerful endorsement of the freedom of the press in recent times, the High Court on Sunday released the full text of a verdict announced in June this year, in which it touched upon the issue in considerable detail. In the judgment, made in relation to a case about a newspaper’s coverage of how the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) had exempted a former engineer of the Public Works Department and his wife charged with corruption, the court was firm, unambiguous and decisive. There cannot be a more authentic voice on this topic than the court, and we are happy that it chose to intervene at a time when the press is facing all sorts of challenges.
The court stated that journalists are “part and parcel” of a democratic process. “In a modern world, right to information is being treated as one of the preconditions for expression of opinion. Journalists act as helping hands in ensuring rule of law and democracy.” As “watchdogs”, it said, journalists disperse information not to undermine anyone but to serve the cause of justice. There is, then, no alternative to an “efficient” and “fearless” press that can do this without any impediments put in its way. Referring to Article 39 of the constitution which deals with freedoms of thought, conscience and speech, the court said that these rights are vital for the press, especially investigative journalism.
Investigative journalism is an effective antidote to the corrosive effect of corruption which, the court said, “undermines democracy and the rule of law; leads to violation of human rights; distorts markets; erodes the quality of life; and allows organised crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish.” Seeing how pervasive corruption has become in our society, it is important that investigative journalists, and their sources, are protected from harm. In this regard, the court categorically mentions that journalists are constitutionally and legally authorised to expose corruption in public interest, and that they cannot be compelled to divulge their sources.
These observations are not without context, and if contrasted with the present reality, they serve as a clarion call to the state authorities which often act as if the rights of the press are not inalienable. In recent years, we have seen how journalists were subjected to threats, violence, harassment, lawsuits, and a culture of censorship. Investigative journalists were especially targeted for disclosing critical information. And various barriers were put up – including, most recently, by declaring 29 government agencies and institutions as “critical information infrastructure” – so that they cannot access or disclose information. Meanwhile, the Digital Security Act, a law that should never have been passed, has been repeatedly abused to target journalists. Also, overt and covert attempts have been made to make it difficult for media organisations, especially those critical of the government, to function.
Under such circumstances, the High Court reminds the authorities that their job is to protect and promote public interest journalism, not punish it or clip its wings. We urge the government to take the court judgment with the seriousness it deserves, and act upon its recommendations.