HAMBURG, GERMANY: Rising nationalism and increasing authoritarian tendencies by the state have been concerns that have been voiced for sometime now. But no one seems to be feeling the impact of an all-powerful state flexing its muscles more than the fourth estate.
In a frank exchange of views, journalists and editors from across the globe at the annual Global Investigative Journalism Conference (GIJC) in Hamburg spoke about the threats they faced from the state in their respective countries and argued that increased collaboration was the only way to ensure that the press could continue to raise their voices against the powerful.
Mahfuz Anam, editor of the Daily Star, one of the best-known newspapers in Bangladesh, says that journalists now need to ask themselves just how the state is being able to get away with attacks against the media with relatively little outcry from the general public.
‘Have we as journalists failed our audience? This is something that we need to reflect upon today especially as in earlier times journalism was considered a noble profession. So what happened? What caused our downfall in the public eye? I believe that over time journalists and media houses became self-centred and self-serving. The bottom line started mattering more than the public interest.’
This changing attitude of journalists and media houses has primarily been the reason why the public has gone to alternative or social media for their news today. Seeing this, autocrats have attacked the established media worldwide through the digital space through legislation.
Pointing to the Digital Security Act passed by the Bangladesh government in 2018, Anam says that the government under the guise of protecting people in the digital sphere not only enables attacks on the media in the digital space, but also gives it unprecedented power to regulate the fourth estate.
‘The police can now arrest somebody without a warrant, they can enter a media house without any legal document. If a police person even has a suspicion that there is something in my server that may relate to terrorism, he can lay siege to my server thereby ensuring my paper is not printed for the day. So, they can close down my newspaper without directly closing down the media.’
The problems being faced by editors in Bangladesh are being echoed elsewhere. Zaffar Abbas, editor of the influential Dawn newspaper in Pakistan, believes that threats from the powerful are a part and parcel of investigative journalism today and journalists in Pakistan must be more conscious about their safety and even the safety and security of their colleagues when printing a story.
‘There are three main threats that a journalist faces: the state authorities, big business houses and the third in Pakistan, and in other countries as well, are the ultra-right or extremist groups. All three groups are opposed to the idea of exposes in investigative journalism and at times even supplement each other.’
Giving an example Abbas says, ‘For the last 15-20 years we have been writing about the Islamic militancy which have been eating into the social fabric of our society and have continuously called for the state to take action. We were accused of being unpatriotic and anti-nationalist.’
‘Today, the government realising the seriousness of this issue says there is no room for armed militancy in the country. When we tried to remind them that we had asked them to take action against these militant groups; we are again accused of being unpatriotic and anti-nationalist for not giving credit to the state authorities.’
But this is just the beginning. As Abbas points out there was a bid to create a ‘climate of fear’ in Pakistani newsrooms. Attacks by militant organisations and direct action by the state authorities on journalists, both on social media and offline, has created concerns for the press in Pakistan with the situation only more likely to get worse.
‘The coming years are likely to get more difficult. Pakistan is going through an existential crisis, where it has to decide whether it is going to get rid of corruption and militancy at the same time. Our role becomes even more crucial here to investigate where they are hiding the facts and that will be a challenging one. Having said all this, I am an optimist. I think if we continue to do our work properly, there is hope.’