Detainment of Shamsuzzaman Shams, a staff reporter and indictment of Motiur Rahman, editor of a popular Bangla daily under the Digital Security Act has heated up lots of debate in domestic and international arena. Many questions are surfacing regarding freedom of expression or journalistic freedom. Journalistic freedom is backbone of any strong democracy but freedom must be used with care and honesty. Journalistic freedom does not also mean to propagate a message using a child. If we delve deep into the whole affair, the picture is not a black and white case against journalist.
On the eve of Bangladesh’s Indpendence Day, 26th March, the daily published a Digital Card with a quote and a photo from a day labourer Zakir Hossain in front of the National Martyrs’ Memorial in Savar, saying, “What can you do with freedom if you don’t have rice in your stomach? When you go to the market, you sweat. Freedom of fish, meat and rice is required.” The now detained Shamsuzzaman Shams was the reporter behind this card.
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Many in social media outcried against the anti-independence sentiment behind the card and it was swiftly deleted the aforementioned card. Shamsuzzaman Shams was detained on 28th March by law enforcement and a case was filed against the editor of the daily alongside him. Many from international community including the UNHCR has issued a strong message condemning the detainment and indictment of the journalists.
The police and some other media houses reported a different story behind the whole incident. It was found out that the picture of the “day labourer” was actually not named Zakir Hossain, but a student of grade 1 named Shobuj who sometimes come to the National Martyrs’ Memorial to hawk flowers with his mom. The kid was allegadly paid 10 taka (around 9 cents in USD) for his photograph by Mr. Shams. Sabuj also denied making such statement used in the card. Prothom Alo’s editorial board said that using the photograph of the kid was an editorial mistake. But still they were not able to disclose any information about “Zakir Hossain”.
Child right violated
The payment of taka 10 and using Sabuj’s picture in a public forum is an immoral act in itself. Most importantly the reporter failed to take permission from the boy’s parents before using the picture in a public forum. Another misinformation was that Sabuj is a student while he was portrayed as a day labourer. Experts suggest that not only does the exploitation of a child for immoral purposes violate their rights, but also giving them a deliberately controversial speech about a country’s independence and sovereignty constitutes an act of treason, falling under the Child Exploitation Act. Sabuj’s parents were furious to know that their innocent kid was used without their consent which is another ground for defamation lawsuit. Such a public exposure for a young kid can take a huge tole in the psyche.
It is to be noted that the daily in question, or the editor has not offered any apology to Sabuj or his parents regarding the whole fiasco. The most important fact to be noted that international or domestic human rights watch dogs have failed the kid without even mentioning the violation of his personal rights.
Journalistic Integrity into question
The whole publishing process of the said Digital Card is very muddy and puts the journalistic integrity of the reporter, the editor and entire newspaper into question. The report violated the journalistic integrity by –
- Using wrong picture
- Mentioning wrong name
- Mentioning wrong profession
- Sabuj’s denial of making such statement
- Paying a child for photograph without consent of parents
- Using photograph of a child without consent of parents
- Failure to produce the proof of Zakir Hossain’s existence
When you mix these violations with a dangerous anti-independent sentiment of the said quote, it becomes a concern for national security as well. Whether Mr. Shams or Mr. Motiur Rahman had any ill intention or it was just an error in process, that should be decided by the court.
Freedom of expression cannot go unchecked
There is no denying the rise in commodity prices in the country. However, where some syndicates and unscrupulous traders are systematically increasing the prices of goods despite having proper invoices, it is the common man’s demand that journalists expose them and play a role in curbing the price hike. But, when they hand over just 10 takas to a small child and use him to manufacture a completely false story, it can be a dangerous game.
Not so long ago we saw the unchecked effect of ‘freedom of expression’ in the US Capitol building in Washington D.C. and parliament and judicial buildings of Brasilia, Brazil. Mobs attacked both important democratic institutions due to false narrative propagated by politicians and spread by established media such as Fox News.
Bangladesh is in a sensitive socio-economic situation with its development process and concurring global challenges in the balance. A false anti-independence narrative in present condition can be create an unsavory situation and national security concerns. Our international friends and partners must respect the rule of law of everyone involved.