Surveillance on journalists abroad demeans us

Kamal Ahmed | Update:

Our foreign ministry has come up with a brand new idea. It has instructed our diplomatic missions in various countries around the world to keep tabs on any Bangladeshi journalist visiting those countries, and to closely monitor their movements.

It came as a shocker to read this news in various newspapers. The initial reaction was one of disbelief. But the letter of the foreign ministry’s external publicity wing director general Mohammed Lutfor Rahman left no room for doubt. Not only journalists, but any citizen of the country would be taken aback by the letter. It quoted the parliamentary standing committee for foreign affairs as recommending this measure. The committee, in its 12th meeting, reportedly said that if any Bangladeshi journalist travels abroad, they must be kept under watch and if they undertake any activities subversive to the state, the foreign ministry must be informed.

The letter said that the parliamentary standing committee had expressed its concern about negative activities of Bangladeshi journalists who were propagating wrong information about Bangladesh in the international arena.

The letter quoting the decision of the parliamentary committee meeting, stated “If any journalist from Bangladesh goes abroad and engages in activities that go against the interests of the country, necessary action in this regard is recommended (implementation: foreign ministry).” It was then said that whenever a Bangladeshi journalist goes on a visit to their host country, they must be monitored in order to unearth their activities. If anybody's involvement is found against the interest and the image of the country, he/she must be identified and such negative activities of theirs must be reported back to MoFA (the foreign ministry) immediately.

According to reports in the media on the parliamentary standing committee meeting, a member of parliament Mehjabeen said that the Pakistan High Commission in Bangladesh over the past few years had invited quite a few Bangladeshi journalists to visit Pakistan. These journalists visited various places and met various people, and spread propaganda and misleading information about the 1971 genocide.

At the end of the meeting, committee chairperson Dipu Moni said, “Restraint cannot be put on journalists travelling out of the country, but it is imperative to monitor them to see if they are involved in any anti-state activities abroad.”

It is apparent from the discussions of the parliamentary committee meeting that Pakistan has hosted several journalists in recent years. India, the US, Japan and many other countries extend similar invitations to journalists too. The objective of such trips is to highlight the politics, society, culture, heritage and other aspects of the respective countries. No one, however, raised any allegation against any journalist perpetrating any anti-state activities while in Pakistan. One MP, however, made a general statement, without any specifics blaming some journalists of meeting various people and spreading propaganda.

The government has several offices and people who can respond to any such misleading propaganda. Why should the question of surveillance on journalists arise? By dint of their profession, journalists often travel abroad on various occasions. They attend conferences, meetings and training programmes. At these forums anyone as a Bangladeshi can speak about things good and bad. They can discuss Bangladesh’s internal challenges, crises and possibilities. The government may not like that, but can that be determined as anti-state? Such random directives are totally unacceptable.

Speaking to journalists on Thursday, foreign minister AH Mahmud Ali said that it was necessary. He said that he hadn’t seen the circular, but would read it. He said whoever went abroad would be monitored in the interests of the country.  He said that this didn’t mean that everyone would be controlled. He said there were very few countries with such a free press. Anyone could write whatever they liked here. But it should be seen what they did when they travelled overseas. He told the journalists that they too should support such monitoring if anyone was involved in activities against the country’s interests.

Our foreign minister is a skilled diplomat. Would he kindly inform the people if, during his long diplomatic career, he had ever kept a watch on the activities of Bangladeshi journalists abroad? Can he give any instance of the missions in the countries where he served, carrying out such monitoring?

Linguists would point out that words, such as ‘unearth’ and ‘monitoring’, had criminal connotations. These are mostly used in crime reports. So by using these objectionable words in their letter, the foreign ministry had done the favour of revealing the adverse circumstances under which journalists have to work.

It would be wrong just to blame the foreign ministry alone. It is the members of the parliamentary standing committee for the foreign ministry that are mainly responsible for this. The committee’s chairperson is former foreign minister Dipu Moni. She has travelled across the globe profusely. If she could give us an example of any country which monitors the movements of its journalists abroad, then we would benefit from the knowledge! I am confident that other than a few extreme authoritarian countries like North Korea, she would not be able to cite the example of a single professedly democratic country in this connection.

The foreign minister may insist that there are very few countries with a media as free as in Bangladesh, but who would believe him? Just handing out a large number of newspaper and private television channel licenses doesn’t bear evidence of press freedom. Press freedom can no longer be measured by the number of newspapers in a country. Freedom of the press can be gauged by whether there is space for criticism that angers the government, for fearlessly speaking of things the government does not want to hear and for expressing difference of opinion.

The reality of article 57 of the Information, Communication Technology(ICT) Act, defamation cases at the slightest excuse, misuse of charges as serious as sedition, arrests, threats and physical assault, have shrunk the space for free media. Earlier this month, organisations for press freedom including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said that the right to expression in Bangladesh has shrunk further.

This stand of the foreign ministry will only tarnish our image further. At a press conference of the foreign ministry on Thursday, former president of the Diplomatic Correspondents Association of Bangladesh (DCAB) Masud Karim requested the foreign minister to withdraw the order to monitor journalists. We express solidarity with his demand and hope the government withdraws its decision. After all, this decision itself demeans the country’s image. It hampers the journalists’ professional duties and is equivalent to creating an obstruction to the freedom of expression. 

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