Press without freedom is propaganda. Sadly, the press in Bangladesh is rarely independent of political influence or financial control, writes Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam.
Despite these realities a press that finds itself fettered by controls - outside the ethical restrictions that responsible journalism demands - fails in the final analysis to gain the trust of the public or to influence public opinion. The public is no longer restricted to a single news outlet. From word of mouth to watchdog blogs, there are always people watching to ensure that big brother is brought down to size, or at least held to account.
Press freedom might make things messy, and there are always people who will consider the press to be a nuisance, but the only time to curb the press is when it crosses ethical boundaries, or when its actions are likely to result in public harm. While the question as to who determines the transgression of these boundaries is in itself a complex issue, often the battle doesn't even get that far. Freedom of expression, for both the press and the public, faces veiled and real threats from powerful entities, like governments, corporations, political and religious groups. This happens the world over, but in a country like Bangladesh, where the very legitimacy of the government is in doubt after a sham election, the idea of quelling freedom of thought appears to be a very convenient mechanism for stifling justified dissent and justifying unjust partisan action.
There have, of course, always been some taboos in the Bangladeshi media. The military is off limits, telecommunications corporations, being the largest advertisers, are generally left alone. Even the donor community and the media itself are generally handled with caution, but more recently, even public media channels have turned into propaganda outlets for the Dhaka government. Critical people are not invited to talk shows. Anchors who ask slanted questions geared to paint a rosier picture of the establishment are the order of the day.
These are very worrying issues indeed. However, direct threats to media companies and the arrest of 'problematic editors' and attacks on journalists and bloggers are of far greater concern. An unusually large number of 'Contempt of Court' charges brought recently by the authorities has also resulted in a culture of fear. As a consequence of this culture of intolerance, many free thinkers have met a violent end. There has never been a time when there was a greater need for critical thinking than today. And it has never been more dangerous to be a critical thinker.
Shahidul Alam, born 1955 in Dhaka, is a Bangladeshi photographer and social activist, who used his art to chronicle the social and artistic struggles in a country known largely for poverty and disasters. His recent exhibition "Crossfire" has been widely acclaimed, but was temporarily closed down by the police leading to nationwide protests.