The Bangladesh Press Council remains silent forgetting the fundamental objective of its birth--safeguarding the freedom of the press—at a time when use of the archaic Official Secrets Act against journalist Rozina Islam appears to be a threat to free journalism.
Her confinement at the health ministry by some officials and filing a case against her on charge of "taking photographs of a confidential document of the ministry" triggered strong outcry and protest in news and social media. Different journalists organisations also took to the streets.
"Prosecuting a journalist in this era under a law formulated during the British rule is a manifestation of the negative attitude and ominous mentality of the authorities for muzzling the voice of the press," said the Sampadak Parishad (Editors' Council) in a statement.
Formed by the state in 1974 to preserve the freedom of the press, the Press Council however did not pay any heed to the outcry.
Its silence runs counter to its legal duties.
About functions of the council, section 11 of the Press Council Act says that "the object of the Council shall be to preserve the freedom of the Press and to maintain and improve the standard of newspapers and news agencies in Bangladesh."
The law also assigns the council with duties to help newspapers and news agencies to maintain their freedom.
The council has not come up with any help in about the last one week since the outrageous incident took place at the secretariat, the administrative hub of the Bangladesh government.
For preserving the freedom of the press, it is the duty of the council, as the law asks it "to keep under review any development likely to restrict the supply and dissemination of information of public interest and importance."
The press council also remained silent when the health ministry in August issued a circular asking health directorate officials not to speak to the media. The circular issued during the pandemic triggered protests as it restricted the dissemination of information to the media.
The preamble of the law enacted by the Parliament during Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman government in 1974 also clearly states the purpose of establishing the council--which is preserving the freedom of the press.
The word "PRESERVE" carries a strong connotation. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the word "preserve" means to keep safe from injury, harm, or destruction; to keep alive, intact, or free from decay; to keep or save from decomposition.
So, the meaning of "preserving freedom of the press" is clear.
The press council is legally bound to work to keep the freedom of the press safe from injury, harm and destruction. Its work is to keep the freedom of the press alive, intact and free from decay.
Panel chairman of the council, advocate Syed Rezaur Rahman, however, says something different.
"The Press Council has little scope to play any special role in the prevailing situation," he told TBS in response to a query whether the council has anything to do at present when journalists and civil society members are calling the use of the Official Secrets Act, 1923 a threat against journalists and freedom of the press.
He says journalists work for press freedom and the country's democracy. If they face any "unwarranted" obstacle to discharge their duties and file any written complaint with the council, then the council may examine the complaint.
Jurist Shahdeen Malik does not agree with the panel chairman who is acting as chairman after the office of the chairman fell vacant in December last year following expiry of the tenure of the then chief.
"The council has been established to protect the freedom of the press and journalists from harassment. But its inaction and silence are very unfortunate at a time when everyone is saying the use of the Official Secrets Act against journalists is an attempt to muzzle the free press," he told TBS.
The council is neglecting its legal duties, he said.
The council is headed by the chairman, who is either a retired judge of the Supreme court or eligible for being a judge of the apex court. It consists of 14 members—senior journalists, academics and two MPs.
The chairman nominated by the president for a three-year term is a whole time officer and he gets monthly salary and other perks. Members get remuneration for attending the council's meetings.
As a statutory and quasi-judicial body which acts as the watchdog of the press. It also adjudicates complaints against and by the press for violation of journalistic ethics.
In fact, a need for such a mechanism has been felt for a long time in civilised countries and a search for it resulted in the setting up of the first Press Council known as the Court of Honour for the Press in Sweden in 1916.
The idea gained quick acceptance in other Scandinavian countries, and later in other parts of Europe, Canada, Asia, Australia and New Zealand. Today, the press councils or similar other media bodies are in place in more than four dozen nations, according to an India Today article published in 2017.
Our lawmakers in 1974 also felt the need for a mechanism—a dedicated institution--to safeguard the freedom of the press.
The reason is clear. If the press is to function effectively as the watchdog of public interest, it must have a secure freedom of expression, unfettered and unhindered by any authority, organised bodies or individuals.
Therefore, they decided to enact the law to establish the press council which exists in many countries.
The press council now has an office building to house its secretariat. It has 12 officers and employees to run the administration. Every year, the government allocates tax payers' money for salary and other allowances of the chairman and staffers of the council.
But the press council's eerie silence in times of need to safeguard the press freedom shows the implementation of the purpose of establishing it remains a distant cry even after 46 years of its birth. This also shows a good law becomes redundant if not enforced.