Around two months have passed since we fell into the tedious rhythm of a lockdown life. As irritably bland as it felt at first for the anxiety and boredom that came with it, most of us have come to terms with it by now because of how inescapable it is. Despite the uncertainty we feel of our future, with no guaranteed security of our lives, the most frustrating part must be that there isn’t really anything we can do about it except stay home.
But what of the journalists on the battlefield? Those having to exit the safety and relief of their homes, leaving their perturbed families behind, to convey the news of home and abroad and depict the rawness of the current situation so that we can remain informed.
There have been over 5.65 million confirmed cases of the Covid-19 virus insofar, including more than 36,000 cases in Bangladesh. Though many of the victims are recovering and the death toll has comparatively slowed down, the contagious situation isn’t exactly looking up. It is even being estimated that a second wave of corona virus will hit countries as well.
WHO emergencies expert Mike Ryan told an online briefing, “It is important to put this on the table: This virus may become just another endemic virus in our communities, and this virus may never go away. HIV has not gone away, but we have come to terms with the virus.”
Now, focusing on the soldiers risking their lives owing to their profession and selflessly serving nations, there are doctors, police, as well as journalists. It is our responsibility to pay homage to the journalists bringing news to our doorsteps from time immemorial, especially during crises such as the ongoing pandemic raging across the planet.
The national arena
The Covid-19 pandemic began blooming in Bangladesh during March, 2020. Educational institutes were closed indefinitely following the birthday of the father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, on 17 March. Gradually, supermarkets, offices, groceries, and every other road were strictly rendered off limits by the authority to compel people to stay home.
And yet there were those who had to cater to their jobs every day, visiting the places reeking of contagion. The media is having to face challenges covering the corona virus outbreak as it requires meticulous navigation and persistent attention. They are trying to describe the dos and don’ts, symptoms, and preventive measures of the virus attack in as simple a language as possible to the general people.
They are putting in effort to represent the people’s voice, as well as the government’s, regarding the management of the outbreak and to raise awareness about the contagion among people. And in order to do so, they have no option but to march out of safety and into risky zones. They are bedeviled in their attempts to a large extent, not only being victimised by the virus, but also by the obstreperous public.
At least 12 journalists are reported to have been assaulted in the past one month, with some requiring hospital attention, after they reported on the pilfering of relief supplies, mainly food aid and mismanagement in relief distribution during the outbreak.
They have also had to confront intimidating threats and censure. Local leaders and activists of the ruling party are primarily the ones who have been identified as the perpetrators in many of the cases. A correspondent of the Daily Jugantor in Bhola was beaten up on 31 March, after he had reported on the theft of the rice meant for distribution in relief. A local correspondent of Sangbad Pratidin in Habiganj was assaulted on 1 April for reporting on irregularities in relief distribution in Habiganj. His colleagues advancing to his aid were also attacked, in which five, including the correspondent in question, were injured.
Journalists have allegedly been harassed with the filing of cases under the Digital Security Act. Cases under the law were filed against journalists — a correspondent in Thakurgaon, five of a media outlet named Jago News, a Narsingdi correspondent of News24, and two others — owing to their reporting on irregularities in relief distribution and criticising the district administration. Reporters Without Borders has provided a figure of seven journalists having been assaulted in Bhola and Habiganj.
The city editor and chief reporter of Dainik Somoyer Alo, Humayun Kabir Khokon, aged 47, died of corona virus symptoms on 28 April. Both his wife and son tested positive for the virus as well, but they are in a stable condition as of now.
Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) and Dhaka Union of Journalists (DUJ) made a joint statement at the Jatiya Press Club affirming that three journalists died from corona virus or its symptoms while 80 more infected mass media workers are being treated either at their respective homes or hospitals. The Unions demanded 50 lakh taka earlier this month as compensation from media outlet owners for each of the journalists who gave their life to the virus.
The international arena
Perhaps what makes the corona virus plight so much more foreboding is its universality. This global plague is like nothing we have experienced before in our lifetime. The residents quarantined in all the other countries are just as fretful as us, if not more. Covid-19 has mowed down hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, and locked in millions of others.
News organisations are compelled to walk a fine line in the coverage of corona virus. They need to convey the gravity of the state of affairs without provoking panic, and report a flood of news while a lot of it remains shrouded in mystery.
According to a survey published by the International Federation of Journalists, three out of four journalists have faced restriction, obstruction, or intimidation while covering the corona virus crisis, analysing responses from 1,308 journalists in 77 countries.
The Brussels-based IFJ also reported that more than a quarter of respondents said they lacked the right equipment to work from home in safe conditions amid lockdown measures. One in four lacked proper protective gear (PPE) when reporting in the field.
China, frowned upon as the provenance of the virus, has not been allowing the smooth flow of press freedom either, which can be observed from the following incident: Zhang Zhan is an independent video journalist who released videos, including interviews with local businesses which deteriorated because of the pandemic, and with workers struggling to earn a living in the city. She had been posting these on Twitter and YouTube since she arrived in Wuhan in early February.
However, she went missing on 14 May, a day after she published a video reproving the Chinese government’s countermeasures to contain the virus. The next day, the Shanghai Municipal Public Security Bureau issued a notice stating that Zhang had been arrested for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, and was being detained at the Pudong Xinqu Detention Centre, according to news reports. If convicted, she could face up to five years in prison, according to the Chinese criminal code.
“China professes pride in its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, but appears deathly afraid of allowing independent journalists like Zhang Zhan to freely tell the story of what is happening,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Steven Butler, in Washington, DC. “Chinese authorities should free Zhang immediately and allow her to continue the important work of documenting the impact of the disease.”
Since the disappearance of freelance video journalist Chen Quishi on 6 February, Beijing has also expelled journalists from media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The retaliation faced by investigative journalists is certainly not limited to China either. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported prison threats to 250 truth-seekers worldwide behind bars.
Investigative journalists are not only risking incarceration, but their voice is suppressed and they get banned from social media as well — for example, the Iranian Mohammed Musaed who, for speaking on and warning people about the pandemic, was banned from work as well as social sites.
The prisoned ones are not even sanctioned protection from the contagion or allotted any enjoyment of basic human rights.
The work of investigative journalists are substantial because they:
- Expose the reality of the condition
- Convey information that is not abridged or partisan
- Raise concerns about the current countermeasures undertaken
- Bestow voice to the most common people and their experiences and hardships
- Depict the brutality as what it really is without redaction
- Derive statistics essential for the awareness of the public
- Are representatives of the masses.
In juxtaposition, we find that their assiduous efforts are posed threat by the following:
- Exposure to a deadly virus that is, by far, uncontainable
- Exposure to infection and illness
- Imprisonment owing to the subdual of press freedom
- Disappearance and/or abduction
- Prohibition of access to social media
- In extreme cases, death sentence, or
- Death due to contamination.
The article hopes to pinpoint the dangers of frontline journalism, assert its indispensable significance, and pay utter respect to the journalists so obsessed with the truth and dispatching news to the public eye that they are willing to put their freedom and life on the line.
The writer is from The TDA Editorial Team.