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Media freedom reports on Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India

(IFJ/IFEX) - 18 December 2012 - The International Federation of Journalists, in collaboration with partners and affiliates, released situation reports on journalists' rights and the state of media freedom in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The information presented in the reports is the result of extensive consultations between the IFJ and its partners, field visits and interviews by IFJ personnel in the two countries. The reports highlight the current priority areas for campaign and advocacy work in the two countries and identify focus areas for future international solidarity actions.

The IFJ also released a situation report on the challenges facing journalists in areas of India affected by a long-running Maoist insurgency. The report is the outcome of consultations with and inputs received from working journalists in three states of special concern: Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Orissa.

Bangladesh - Journalism in the political crossfire

In Bangladesh, the deeply polarised nature of national politics continues to create fissures within the media, with owners, who are often compelled to take sides, pressuring professional staff. Political contention is likely to mount as the country approaches national Parliamentary elections in 2013. Constitutional amendments enacted by the current government in 2011, ostensibly to imbed what it portrays as the values of Bangladesh's liberation struggle, have led to serious discord, and opposition protests have been mounting, particularly against a clause which does away with the system of holding national elections under neutral, caretaker administrations.

After several false starts, the process of bringing to account individuals accused of crimes and atrocities during Bangladesh's 1971 war of liberation began in 2011. But the pressures and political sensitivities associated with the proceedings of the International Crimes Tribunal - a body created by Bangladesh national law - have not abated despite broad consensus on the need for accountability. Media reporting on the proceedings of the tribunal has often come under the scrutiny of the tribunal, which has twice held particular newspapers and journalists guilty of contempt.

There have been multiple cases where particular newspapers have been charged under the defamation law. The allocation of broadcast spectrum for television channels is often seen to be a source of exerting control and a form of censorship.

Safety issues were highlighted by the brutal twin murder of a journalist couple in the capital city Dhaka, in February, and in a number of retaliatory attacks by political actors, for reporting deemed as critical.

Bangladesh's journalists began a campaign in February 2012 to secure a new wage accord for themselves. Under national law, statutory bodies are required to be created every few years to ensure that journalists' wages and working conditions are appropriate to their requirements of sustaining a high level of professional motivation and commitment. These efforts were rewarded in June 2012, when a wage board comprising representatives of the journalists' unions, the media industry and government was constituted under the chairmanship of a former Supreme Court judge.

Important policy changes in recent times have enabled a growth of community radio in Bangladesh, though licensing processes are seen as excessively complicated. A right to information bill enacted in 2009 promises greater accountability and transparency in governance, though it is seen to grant too many exceptions and the number of those who have been motivated to use it, is still very modest.

Sri Lanka - Media freedom a neglected dimension of post-war politics

IFJ partners in Sri Lanka have been campaigning for media freedom to be recognised as an essential part of the process of national reconciliation, following the end of the country's quarter-century long civil war in 2009. Their efforts are yet to be recognised, since few reforms have been implemented in the media sector and the recommendations of a high-level commission on national reconciliation remain largely on paper.

Media reporting on the process of resettlement and rehabilitation in the country's Northern Province, which suffered the worst ravages of the civil war, has often been impeded by security personnel who continue to be deployed there. And far from assuring accountability for the number of attacks and killings of journalists during the war, the pattern of violence has persisted in the years following.

Journalists and human rights defenders are often attacked by official spokespeople on government-controlled media channels, contributing to an atmosphere of intolerance for even legitimate criticism of the government. Websites that carry news and current affairs content on Sri Lanka have been subject to arbitrary rules of registration and in some cases, to police raids and seizure of equipment.

Financially vulnerable media houses have been subject to further pressures as increased costs passed on from banks and financial institutions threatens their sustainability. In addition, change of ownership has often resulted in rapid changes in editorial policies and personnel.

The revival of the Press Council of Sri Lanka is seen to embody a very real coercive intent on the part of the government, since the 1973 law under which the body is constituted conceives of a number of possible sanctions against the media, including the power to prosecute under various provisions of criminal law. The Sri Lanka Press Complaints Commission, a self-regulatory body set up by the media industry, has been seeking to establish its credentials as an institution that is fully equipped to deal with current challenges.

Journalism in India's insurgency areas

The report reflects a broad consensus among journalists from these three states that the hazards for journalists have been mounting in recent years, with levels of violence increasing and the demands from the Maoist cadre for favourable and uncritical coverage becoming unrelenting.

Splits within the Maoist ranks and the tendency for security agencies to make strategic use of one faction against another, also presents an additional element of hazard for journalists.

There is widespread suspicion among journalists in these three states that their phones are constantly tapped because Maoist cadres often call them on their cell-phones to provide updates and opinions.

Also, since journalists generally encounter little problem in accessing Maoist operational areas, police personnel have on occasion been known to use media identities to infiltrate these areas for intelligence gathering. This makes journalists liable to acts of retribution by the Maoists.

Maintaining a sense of proportion is a constant challenge since every Maoist action is magnified in its impact by the prevailing atmosphere of fear. A general strike call for instance, could emanate from operationally weak quarters of the Maoist insurgency, but would paralyse life in large parts of these states, even if featured as a small news story in the local media.

The insurgency has also skewed the system of rewards and incentives for journalists. A journalist who reports on sensational stories from the Maoist operational areas would gain recognition while another reporting on the general state of poverty, deprivation and the poor state of social services, which are the background conditions in which the Maoist rebellion has taken root, would gain little recognition.

Police personnel in these states are also known to use the special powers they have been conferred to crack down on critical journalists, often using the most draconian provisions of the law such as those pertaining to sedition.

Apart from these hazards, journalists work in conditions of negligible professional security. Few of them have letters of appointment and they mostly work at salary levels well below the subsistence minimum. Most of them are required to multi-task and perform the function of mobilising advertisements for their media, severely impairing their independence and ability to take a critical stance towards administrative officials and local notables with substantial ad budgets at their disposal.

The system of issuing press credentials in these states remains opaque and unprofessional. Media owners are known to dominate the process and to corner available quotas in the issue of official press accreditation cards, which enable quick access to official spaces.

At a meeting held in August to discuss the main findings of inquiries in the three states, journalists adopted a campaign that put forward a set of specific demands, including insurance cover for all journalists assigned to work in districts of active Maoist insurgency, and special credentials for media personnel, including if necessary district-level accreditation for these individuals.

It was proposed that journalists' unions in these states should launch a campaign to generate public awareness on the need for the media to work in an environment free of fear. To this end, they would seek to secure a public declaration from all sides in the conflict, that media would be granted unfettered access to all sites of news importance.

A safety code suitable to local situations would evolve and coordination between editorial departments and the reporters in the field would improve to ensure that news headlines, layouts and presentation do not misrepresent realities and create avoidable risks.

Finally, unions in all these states have resolved to expand their membership and to provide unrepresented journalists a platform. Until such time that issues of accreditation are resolved, the unions have undertaken to campaign strongly to ensure that the identity cards they issue are accepted by all sides as adequate proof of media credentials.

The IFJ extends its full support to this campaign. The IFJ urges that conflicts in these states be resolved through an assertion of basic democratic norms and recognition of the role that journalists play as facilitators of the democratic right to know.

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