By Syed Badrul Ahsan- Associate Fellow, & leading journalist & editor in Charge, The Asian Age, and author of ‘Sheikh Mujibur Rahman: From Rebel to Founding Father’ (2014)

Populism in these times is always a danger signal for democracy and the rule of law. And it is so because politicians who ride to power on the strength of narrow parochialism or unadulterated nationalism show scant respect for such fundamental human ideals as freedom of speech. While in a number of instances, especially where they attain high office through democratic means, they are unable to go beyond rant in their attacks on such pillars of freedom as journalism, they nevertheless undertake a seemingly endless and obviously disturbing process of sniping at the media.

Such sniping, on the face of it, does not do much damage to freedom of expression. On closer look, though, the dangers caused by populism, or call it parochial nationalism, have clear ramifications in that they incite their followers into going for similar patterns of behaviour. In turn, despite their best efforts to keep to a high moral ground, sections of the media and of course civil society feel the pressure. Their discomfiture is palpable. Observe the decline of politics in these times of Donald Trump and Viktor Orban and Jair Bolsonaro and Rodrigo Duterte.

Beyond these sordid developments in the United States, Hungary, Brazil and the Philippines is a spectre throwing up an ominous image of worse to come. And it all has to do with how a number of governments — and their loyalists — around the world have been approaching, and abusing, the idea of freedom of expression in light of the coronavirus pandemic over these past many months. Governments have unabashedly taken advantage of the pandemic to crack down on opposition or send the message out that criticism of their actions will draw a fearsome response from the state. It is a situation which we observe not just among certain Commonwealth member-nations but around the globe as a whole. Egypt under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, never a comfortable place for journalists, has in these pandemic times dwindled into a worse state where the media are concerned. Journalism, battered by systematic arrests of newsmen over the years, is as good as dead. In Cairo, media freedom has slipped to tame reportage even as politics has been on hold.

Conditions in Pakistan are grim as well. With a putatively elected civilian government presided over by Prime Minister Imran Khan, the country’s perennially powerful military continues to call the shots, particularly where it is a matter of intimidating the media. The recent death in mysterious circumstances in Sweden of an exiled Pakistani journalist is a case in point. At home, the owner of a newspaper establishment, no loyalist of democracy himself, has been carted off to prison. Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), an inordinately powerful arm of the military, continues dictating terms upon which the media will or will not function.

The media in Bangladesh, in these coronavirus times, have come under renewed pressure. The mysterious disappearance of a journalist, Shafiqul Islam Kajol, for weeks in recent times before his equally mysterious reappearance in unexplained circumstances in a region close to Bangladesh’s border with India, is a portrayal of how the pandemic is being taken advantage of by vested quarters to stifle free expression. It was given out that Kajol had trespassed into Bangladesh from India, but what was never explained was how he had gone to India before stepping back into his own country. When his son rushed to see him, he broke into tears and told him he had done nothing wrong and that justice would prevail.

The charge of trespassing against Kajol was quashed, but that did not help him any. On the basis of a case filed against him and a host of other journalists — and that was before his disappearance — over the publication of a report on questionable dealings in a Dhaka hotel by a powerful figure of the ruling party’s women’s front, Kajol was sent off to jail. He was in handcuffs. The controversial Digital Security Act was the basis on which he was taken into custody.

In the past one month, or slightly more, no fewer than twenty journalists have been charged or arrested in Bangladesh under the Digital Security Act, a development that clearly raises concerns about the arbitrariness in which the media are being proceeded against. A recent instance is the arrest of a journalist on the basis of a case filed by another journalist on behalf of a politician who happens to be a lifelong member of the press club in the country’s north-east.

A culture of impunity appears to be setting in as the norm in dealing with the media in a number of countries, with governments utilizing the coronavirus pandemic as a lever to crack down on free expression. With eight journalists dead in Rwanda — and let it not be forgotten that the next CHOGM will be hosted in Kigali — and 35 of their compatriots fleeing to safer shores abroad, one would be perfectly qualified to question the periodic and inane declarations of adherence to the rule of law by governments in wide swaths of the globe. Rwanda under its present leadership has seen journalism compelled into silence. Similar have been conditions in Eritrea, where the once ideals-driven Issaias Afewerki has for decades presided over a regime that does not conceal its contempt for freedom of expression. African prisons, as of December 2019, hold as many as 73 journalists. The figure does not include those who, outside prison, have been cowed into silence or have voluntarily opted to leave the profession.

If the media are relatively free in large regions of the Commonwealth, that is hardly a reason for happiness, given some bizarre developments which have been taking place within some of its democratic enclaves. The invasion of a television channel office in Australia by the country’s police sent shock waves around the world not merely because the outrage was being committed in a traditionally pluralist society but also because of fears that if Canberra could go after its journalists, there would be little reason for other, less developed societies not to emulate its action. Add to that developments, if one can use the term, in another Commonwealth member-state. Singapore has adopted a law relating to penalizing journalists who, in the words of the authorities, spread fake news. What becomes clear here, and not just in Singapore, is the increasing propensity of governmental authorities to abjure normal procedures in responding to media reports — inquiring into the validity of the reports and coming forth with explanations for citizens — and instead go straightaway for the jugular in tackling the media.

The coronavirus pandemic has been exposing odd — and unacceptable — behaviour on the part of media owners in a number of countries. In Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, journalists have been subjected to retrenchments and, in a number of instances, dismissals without notice. Very large numbers of journalists who have remained deprived of their salaries especially since the outbreak of the pandemic are now in dire straits without remunerations and without jobs. Downsizing, in pretty insensitive manner, is the weapon media owners have resorted to in pushing journalists out of their organizations.

The situation is grim for the media. With ostensibly democratic governments beginning to wield authoritarian powers and repressive laws as instruments to keep the media from questioning them on such issues as coronavirus tests, the availability of test kits and masks, the validity of casualty figures regularly given out by the authorities, the future for journalists hardly looks promising. Compounding the problem is the clear pusillanimity in which journalist unions in a number of nations have been reduced to. That and the tendency on the part of sections of the media, in various countries, to play partisan roles in upholding the ‘image’ of governments, no questions asked, has only worsened the state of the media.

Journalists keen on doing justice to their profession often find themselves up against thick, well-entrenched walls. Subjected to abusive behaviour by local political elements, threatened with death by them and their hangers-on, with repressive laws serving as Damocles’ swords over them, these media people find themselves in a straitjacket. One has only to glance at conditions in Argentina, Mexico, Ecuador, Honduras, Iran and India. In Hungary, dissemination of ‘false’ news can with alacrity have journalists land in prison, condemned to remain there for five years.

And that is the state of journalism in diverse regions of the globe in these troubled times. That is also a reason why pressure, despite all the constraints, needs to be piled on governments that have sadly and arrogantly adopted patterns of behaviour patently and unabashedly authoritarian in their attitude to the media — the better to have them change course, to compel them to uphold the rule of law, to remind them that assaults on free expression close the doors to the future for present generations and for those yet to be. ***