The arrival of the alien radical element in Afghanistan and the brutal demonstration of its power to strike at will at the heart of the country’s democratic process, considerably raises the level of menace.
The South Asian region remained vulnerable to the wave of populist authoritarianism evident elsewhere in recent years. The practice of journalism is deeply affected by these trends. Internet-based news platforms and social media continue their rapid growth, pressuring traditional media to evolve new modes of adjustment and accommodation. That new compact remains elusive and if anything, traditional media is pushing back by abandoning older and more valued attributes.
The internal political context in most of the eight South Asian countries, is marked by sharpening political polarisation. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Maldives and Pakistan are scheduled to conduct national general elections later this year, and all these countries pose special challenges for journalists seeking free and fair access to news sites and non-hostile reporting environments.
Highlighting the insecure lives of journalists in war-torn Afghanistan, as many as ten journalists were killed on April 30, 2018. In addition to a journalist being gunned down in Khost in Eastern Afghanistan, nine journalists, including a female journalist, were killed in the line of duty in Kabul when a suicide bomber disguised as a journalist detonated himself among the reporters and camera crew had rushed to cover an earlier suicide blast. A radical group that originated in the prolonged conflict in the Arab world claimed responsibility for the attack, in which more than 50 people were killed. This deadly attack in one of the most fortified areas of the capital city follows a lethal blast at a voter registration centre just a week before which killed more than 50. A radical group that originated in the prolonged conflict in the Arab world claimed responsibility for the suicide attack.
Since Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced a policy of negotiations with the Taliban – the country’s erstwhile rulers who have re-emerged as a ferocious guerrilla army – there were hopes that the politics of reconciliation may triumph over the long running insurgency. Media practitioners who have negotiated their own modes of engaging with the known threats while standing by professional codes, may have had reason to hope for an abatement of the daily hazards they face. The arrival of the alien radical element in Afghanistan and the brutal demonstration of its power to strike at will at the heart of the country’s democratic process, considerably raises the level of menace.
Afghanistan’s journalists are not entirely aware of the multiple directions from which threats emanate. Armed insurgents have carried out a number of targeted killings, but equally, there are hazards arising from potentially being at the wrong place at the wrong time and getting caught in crossfire or a blast.
An official attempt to investigate every such instance since the political transition began in Afghanistan, has been launched with the cooperation of the country’s journalists. Progress however, has been slow and an environment of trust between the political establishment and the country’s media practitioners is yet to be built. Assaults on journalists by political figures and their associates have been common, typically triggered by some form of critical reporting.
After the last general election to its national parliament, the Jatiya Songsad, was boycotted by the principal opposition, Bangladesh faces another potentially divisive election before the end of the year. The government has ruled without serious opposition within parliament for an entire term, but has found it difficult to contain the forces of bitter partisanship on the street. This has infected the functioning of the media, with journalists often having to pick sides or risk being ostracised by both contending parties.
A proliferation of media outlets across all formats – print, visual and online – with no clear regulatory philosophy, has contributed to an erosion of trust of journalism in Bangladesh.
Media practitioners and journalists who seek to uphold certain values, find their status questioned by association with the wider cohort of political operatives. For instance, securing a statutory wage board to stipulate appropriate levels of compensation for journalists – as provided under Bangladesh’s national law – has proved an uphill struggle for the country’s unions.
The government in Bangladesh has also armed itself with extraordinary powers to police the online and social media space. The number of arrests and prosecutions launched far exceed the capacity of the judicial instruments created under the law and often amount to a form of punishment without trial. This has caused some disquiet and the possibility of organised protests, especially from Bangladesh’s growing population of bloggers.
Pakistan also witnessed an effort at intensifying online policing through a newly enacted law on electronic crimes. Authorities brought into play certain over-broad definitions of criminal activity, such as maligning national institutions and spreading “anarchy and extremism” to target particular journalists and media houses. Incidents of arbitrary detention and torture have been reported. And journalists who suffer the misfortune of being charged under the law, will potentially have to bear that millstone for long years.
Pakistan’s electronic media regulator remains prepared to suspend all broadcasts under the slightest duress, as with a street demonstration that threatened to paralyse life in the national capital Islamabad and the adjacent city of Rawalpindi in November. There was in the course of the year, an effort to apply the same regulatory template to the print media, which was hastily withdrawn amid considerable embarrassment for the authorities, as the industry pushed back strongly.
Disconnecting the mobile phone and internet services continue being among the first recourses for Pakistan’s federal and state authorities in any context of possible unrest. The national capital region of Islamabad and Rawalpindi has been visited with this manner of a ban five times over the course of the year.
In lesser contexts of the apprehension of public disturbances, the social media sites are principal targets. Between the fear of a viral spread of rumour and the possibility of using these channels to quieten a possible contagion, the Pakistani authorities clearly tilt towards the fearful side.
In the vastness of India, there is no time when electoral competition is absent from one corner or the other. Recent years have witnessed the menace of commercially strapped media houses selling print space and broadcast time to candidates and political parties, to make good a rapid shrinking of advertising revenue. The Election Commission of India has since made it a standard practice to set up watchdog bodies to monitor the media in the context of election campaigns, to detect when unfair means may be in play. So far, only candidates engaging in the practice have been held liable, on charges of concealing campaign expenses. The media industry has suffered an erosion of credibility and also faces a movement in civil society, to hold it liable under law for this category of abuse.
Recent election campaigns have also been junctures when the vast and relatively unfettered media industry in India has begun choosing sides with an unaccustomed fervour. There is a suggestion here of journalist autonomy being forced to take a backseat while the corporate interest of the media owner dictates editorial policy. The growing partisanship is also seen as a strategy of gaining traction in the social media space through promoting certain stories with hyper-partisan taglines. The unresolved issue of evolving a viable revenue model for the new context of exploding connectivity, is clearly taking an ethical toll.
As India goes through a busy schedule of state-level elections through the second half of the year, and moves towards potentially a fiercely contested national general election early in 2019, the media will be under watch, perhaps as much as it is watched or read.
The social media space, inherently so difficult to monitor because of the sheer volume of information transacted through it, is expected to become a major battleground as elections approach. The last national general election of 2014 witnessed a significant increase in the use of social media, though one party proved to be far ahead of the game than all others. In the years since, these campaign strategies have been discovered and to some degree discredited. There is also a more vigorous fact-checking ecosystem that has grown and is quick to challenge patently spurious social media posts.
Charges of “fake news” are freely traded, often with the fact-checkers being accused of the very vice that they seek to curb. The issue has been taken on board the regulatory agenda, though not in a manner that inspires great confidence among those worried about the corrosive impact of spurious news and information on the standards of civic and political life.
Social media came under the scanner in Sri Lanka, when the highland town of Kandy erupted in sectarian violence in March. After setbacks that the coalition elected to power in 2015 suffered in provincial and local elections, this outbreak seemed an ominous warning that the post-war reconciliation process was in danger of rupture. Further turbulence seemed to engulf the coalition when the Prime Minister had to face down a no-confidence vote in Parliament.
The Sri Lankan government responded to the violence in Kandy by declaring a state of emergency and imposing a ban on social media, an almost reflexive response among all governments in the region.
In Sri Lanka though, civil society organisations seem to have stepped up to challenge this unthinking reflexive action and try to bring some degree of nuance to the debate on how social media is best governed.
Civil society groups have written to the government of Sri Lanka and also the management of Facebook, seeking a serious engagement with the issue, to find mutually agreeable pathways towards a sane governance policy.
A brief improvement in the media environment in the Maldives ended when the island republic’s democratic transition went off the rails. Ordered by the Supreme Court of the Maldives to release a number of political prisoners, the President of the Republic chose instead to imprison the offending judges and lay siege to parliament. In the course of that extraordinary political turn, a number of media outlets were shut down, particularly those that have been consistently inclined towards the opposition in editorial approach.
Where the heavy-handed closure is not a recourse, the Maldivian authorities have brought charges under draconian clauses of the law dealing with national security. A series of defamation and libel suits have been lodged to shut down any manner of criticism. The repression it is feared, could only worsen as the country heads towards presidential elections in October this year.
Nepal affords a relatively placid picture through a rocky year for most of South Asia. Since the political transition began in the early part of the century, Nepal has witnessed intense internal schisms over ministry formation and the drafting of its republican constitution. Indecisive electoral outcomes and hung parliaments made government formation a story of one briefly lived coalition after another. And disputes over power-sharing between the centre and the provinces and the empowerment of ethnic and linguistic minorities, made the latter an endlessly contentious process.
Constitution writing was finally concluded in 2015 and in multi-level elections held 2017, a seemingly cohesive coalition won convincing majorities, promising a period of relative political stability. As the new constitution takes effect and a host of legal changes begin to exert their influence, the media will also be obliged to change its mode of working. There may be for instance, a greater migration of media towards the provincial and local levels, unlike now, when it seems clustered rather heavily around the national capital, Kathmandu.
Political office holders and certain constitutional functionaries would likewise, have to respond to media coverage with an ability to distinguish between their institutional and individual roles. This aspect was highlighted through the year in contempt proceedings that the country’s Chief Justice launched against a newspaper for reporting certain discrepancies in official records of his age.
A confrontation between the media and the police force in a province of Nepal occurred over the publication of the performance appraisals of certain police officers. An avoidable precedent could have emerged from the police demand that the media reveal its sources.
Other stories reporting malfeasance in government agencies and public corporations have attracted threats of retribution. The institutional means of grievance redressal obviously still have a long way to go before they gain general acceptance.
Bhutan will also go to the polls towards the end of the year to elect its third National Assembly since beginning the transition to a constitutional monarchy in 2008. Elections to the twenty seats in the upper house – the National Council – will conclude before that. A new constitution is in place and a number of laws have been enacted with implications for media functioning. There are worries that in the effort to play safe, the laws may tilt towards restraining media freedom.
Bhutan will face a challenge in instituting a culture of competitive and professional journalism in a context where internet based platforms and the social media seem to be taking over the space for information transactions. In that sense, its challenges differ from other countries in South Asia, where traditional media are struggling to cope with the new communication technologies.
Concerns over the “viral effect” that could be engendered through the social media are acute in all South Asian democracies. There is also much worry over the absence of a professional process of curating content posed on social media. In polarised political milieus, journalists who take to social media to insist on adherence to traditional values of the profession, often become targets of abuse. These come frequently with threats of physical violence, a hazard that women especially are prone to. All countries in South Asia face in this sense, a common challenge of overcoming the new spirit of incivility which has fused in social media practice, with traditional patriarchies.