EC guidelines on election reporting unacceptable
OPINION20 April 2023
Al Mamun Harun Ur Rashid :
The Election Commission (EC)'s recent guidelines restricting journalists from using motorbikes, staying in polling booths for more than ten minutes and capturing photos or video streaming without prior permission is a serious threat to the freedom of press and fair coverage of twelfth parliamentary election. These restrictions are contradictory to the very essence of democracy which requires an open and transparent electoral process.
Journalists play a crucial role in ensuring free and fair elections by observing the process, reporting on irregularities, and providing an accurate account of the proceedings. The Commission's guidelines restrict the movement of journalists, effectively limiting their ability to report on the elections.
Furthermore, the journalists' stay for only ten minutes inside polling booths is a severe infringement on their ability to report accurately on the election process. Journalists need to have enough time to observe the voting process and identify any irregularities or malpractices. Ten minutes is simply not enough time to do so. The Election Commission's guidelines appear to be aimed at restricting the media's ability to report on the election rather than facilitating free and fair coverage.
The Election Commission has argued that these restrictions are necessary to prevent overcrowding and maintain order inside polling booths. However, these concerns can be addressed by alternative measures. Blanket restrictions on journalists are not the solution. Journalists should have the freedom to capture images and stream videos that may expose irregularities or malpractices during the election time. Without freedom, media's ability to act as a watchdog is severely compromised, and the public is left in the dark about any issues that may arise in the elections.
Indeed, these contradictory guidelines suggest that the Commission may not consider the media as "eyes and ears" for fair elections but rather view them as an inconvenience or nuisance. The restrictions on the media's movement and observation of polling booths indicate that they may not appreciate the critical role that the media plays in ensuring transparency and accountability during elections.
It is important to remember that the media's role in elections is not just to report the results but also to act as a watchdog, ensuring that the election process is free and fair. By restricting the media's movement and coverage, the EC is effectively limiting the ability of the public to have access to the information they need to make informed decisions. This is a disservice to the democratic process and undermines the Commission's own mandate to ensure free and fair elections.
The government has claimed that the EC is independent and committed to holding free and fair elections. However, these restrictions suggest otherwise. If the government truly wants to ensure free and fair elections, the EC must allow journalists to report freely without fear of retribution.
During the recent Washington meeting between Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Secretary of State urged the Bangladesh government to set an example in holding free and fair elections. But such restrictions on the media do not reflect the commitment of the Bangladesh government about holding an election participated by all. The media restrictions will only serve to deter the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) from participating in the polls, raising concern about the credibility of the election. Without adequate media coverage, it will be difficult for opposition parties to assess the fairness of the electoral process and to mobilise their supporters to participate in the polls. This is a grave concern for the democratic process. The government and the EC must address it urgently for the sake of a free, fair, participatory and credible election.
In a democracy, the media must be free to report on the electoral process without fear of censorship or harassment. By doing so, Bangladesh can set an example for the region and the world in upholding the principles of democracy and freedom of the press.
It is the responsibility of the government to guarantee that elections are free and fair, and this cannot be achieved without a free and independent media.
In conclusion, restricting the movement of journalists on the Election Day and limiting their observation time inside polling booths are a direct attack on the freedom of press and the democratic process. The Election Commission must reverse its guidelines regarding media to make the 12th National Elections credible and participatory.
(The writer is a journalist).