Malta’s handling of the case of the murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, has not only pushed the country into a political and constitutional crisis, it has also highlighted the power wielded by the media and the many threats it constantly faces, says Syed Badrul Ahsan, associate research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.
The ramifications of Daphne Caruana Galizia death two years ago include the resignation of the country’s prime minister and the arrest of powerful figures. But does the Galizia story revive public confidence in the ability of the media to speak truth to power? It was only a year ago that the dissident Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, was murdered by Saudi agents in the putative security of Riyadh’s consulate in Istanbul. Although fingers were pointed and promises made to ‘get to the bottom of the tragedy’, the world has gone disturbingly quiet on the subject.
When you deal with the question of press freedom, you ought to be confronting the many dimensions of it, then try to answer them as best you can. The questions always throw themselves at you, and it is immaterial whether they emanate from the dark corridors of political power or the dungeons of misanthropic men.
There is the tragic tale of Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who disappeared on a Pakistani street and then decapitated by elements holding a perverted view of faith. Of course, Pearl was a courageous man. You are not a journalist if boldness is not part of your character. But there is also the inevitable, though unpalatable, truth that courage can often be an invitation to disaster, to an immensity of suffering for the one armed by it.
Here in Bangladesh, the killing of men like Manik Shaha and Balu and so many others left many of us in the media despondent for days and months. In the end, though, we emerged from the shock renewed in our ability to expose misdeeds at the top. It does not matter that a politician turns into a predator in search of reporters to beat up, perhaps even kill, when they speak of his conspiratorial deeds. What matters is that journalists do not give up the power they wield to put bad people in their place. That cheers you up, somewhat.
But just as you think you are a free journalist, you remember all the calls that governments have made over the years about the need for objective journalism. Does it not strike you as peculiar that the profession you are engaged in should be coming to you in such an adjectivally defined way? You are either a journalist or you are not. Just as it either rains or, it does not.
Therefore, when ‘objectivity’ is pushed in your face, you know that is not what men in power are after. They are informing you, simply and without embarrassment that they mean not to accept any criticism of what they do. Objectivity, then, could be a politically correct term these days in the sense that it could mean a clear propensity to uphold the lie as truth.
Back in the old days of dictatorship, there was something called ‘advice’ coming from the government – and it was always in the nocturnal hours – asking newspapers not to print particular news items. Editors could of course choose to go ahead and print the items. But they wouldn’t, for the advice was really a command, an overturning of which could push you and your family into unforeseen misery.
All this talk of a free press is everywhere a matter of truth confronting power. Do not forget Watergate, that seminal moment when two intrepid young journalists destroyed an imperial presidency. Richard Nixon’s fall in August 1974 was a triumph for media freedom.
These victories, you will likely suggest, are possible in America. And you could be right. Does anyone recall the self-questioning Lyndon Johnson went in for the first time in his Vietnam-clouded presidency when Walter Lippmann, the informal adviser to several presidents, told Americans the war was going all wrong? Johnson told his aides that if Lippmann went against him, there was a good chance America would go against him as well. This is an example of the media compelling an administration to stand, to pause and glance at the landscape before it. Asked by journalists if he would seek re-election in 1968, Johnson responded that he would cross the bridge when he came to it. Days later, Time magazine printed a cartoon depicting the US president surveying a bridge broken and burnt by the fires of Vietnam.
The trouble with countries run by self-obsessed governments is that they are often witness to some of the crudest patterns of behaviour by the ‘powers that be’. Pakistan’s Salamat Ali had the lash rain down on his back for the temerity he displayed in faulting General Ziaul Haq over the dictator’s policies. Zia tried to break the man. Fortunately for all of us, men like Salamat Ali do not break.
Unfortunately, however, not every journalist is a Salamat Ali. In Bangladesh, there have been reporters who have cheerfully belittled the War of Liberation through radio programmes they called Plain Truth – it was neither plain nor the truth – before going on to serve in high positions in the very country they once lambasted as a way of pleasing their masters in distant Rawalpindi. One of them would go on to achieve notoriety through engaging in innuendo and calumny against the jailed leaders of the Mujibnagar government in November 1975. All those incarcerated men were then done to death in the dark confines of prison. It is saddening to think that there are circumstances when even journalists can turn out to be fearsome beings.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is editor-in-charge at The Asian Age. His biography of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, From Rebel to Founding Father: Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was published in 2013. Recent works include Glory and Despair: The Politics of Tajuddin Ahmad, and History Makers in Our Times. He contributes to Dhaka Courier, First News, Dhaka Tribune, Bangla Tribune, Our Time, Indian Express, Asian Affairs, and South Asia Monitor.
This is an edited extra from an article published in the Dhaka Courier. The full version is here.