“Gender-based discrimination in media is a 'taboo' subject”
Ms. Tahmina Rahman is the Director for Bangladesh and South Asia region of ARTICLE 19. Previously, she was the Deputy Director of the International Mobilisation Programme at the Secretariat of Amnesty International. She has a Master in Laws from the University of London, School of Oriental and African Studies. She was also a McArthur fellow at Harvard University, USA. Ms. Rahman has been recently nominated as "Woman of Expression, 2012", for an online publication on women who have excelled in human rights activism in South America and beyond. Law & Our Rights talks with her on freedom of expression and women's rights.
Law Desk (LD): What is the overall situation of freedom of expression in Bangladesh? Do you think that freedom of expression as enshrined in our constitution is maintained in Bangladesh?
TahminaRahman(TR): Bangladesh has seen an incredible growth in the print and electronic media in the last decade. There are over a thousand newspapers published from Dhaka and other cities. We have over twenty private television channels including Sangshad TV, a channel on twenty four hour live telecast of parliamentary proceedings. The country has twenty six FM radio and vibrant internet use and participation among the youth. Fourteen community radio stations are functional in rural areas. We also have a right to information law, these have opened new horizons and tremendous potentials for free flow of information and freedom of expression. The country scores 38.4 out of 100 in the World Bank Voice and Accountability Index. Freedom House ranks Bangladesh as, “partly free”.
However death threats, physical attacks and fraudulent litigation that silence journalists are common practice, over 27 journalists have been killed in the last decade, none of these have seen the day light of trial. This contributes to a culture of impunity and the entire journalist community and the nation awaits with baited breath for the public disclosure of the investigation results to murders of the journalist couple Sagor Sarwar and Mehrun Runi.
LD: How did you get involved with freedom of expression issues?
TR: Freedom of expression has always been part of my work, I deeply believe in people's right to speak and to be heard, as a young lawyer I fought in the courts to release political prisoners illegally detained. As an international aid worker I ensured through policy advocacy and field research in countries in Africa, South and East Asia that aid programmes were sensitive to issues and needs of refugees and beneficiaries. As a women's right advocate I have spoken on discrimination against women at various international fora including the United Nations so that countries live upto commitments made at Beijing and in other international agreements. Most recently through my work in ARTICLE 19 I have ensured that the voices of women journalists are heard and the too rarely discussed issue of discrimination and censorship against women in the media in Bangladesh is highlighted within the media and the government.
LD: Why do you have a specific concern with women?
TR: Women have been guaranteed equal rights on paper in many countries and I salute women's social, political and economic achievements. But obstacles that impede their progress are still huge; many are denied equality and justice. In many countries women have not achieved equal right to inheritance; violence against them is persistent both outside and at home, and taking new forms each day. Discrimination at workplace prevents them from fully enjoying employment opportunities and glass ceiling holds them back from leadership and decision making. Stereotypical attitudes towards them and traditional practices stand against equality.
So if we wish to see today's girl children to stand in dignity and with confidence at home and in public we have much to do. We need to make sure that our institutions are gender friendly, take active measures to remove discrimination, change mid-set and attitudes toward women's work and role at home. We also need to create enough spaces where they can voice their opinions and share experiences without fear and fully participate in nation building and as global citizens.
LD: You are working on women's participation in the media. Is there any discrimination against women in this field? What are your findings?
TR: For the past year ARTICLE 19 has been working in Bangladesh on the issue of women's participation in the media. We have found evidence of significant levels of gender-based discrimination and censorship of women journalists. We have also found that this reality is a “taboo” subject rarely spoken of. Through workshops, discussions and interviews we identified that the sector itself is a major challenge: within the media there is little willingness to acknowledge issues of discrimination and censorship that originate in the sector's own culture and ways of working. We have also found that this is not an easy topic to uncover, identify or address but it is essential that we face up to it. This erodes freedom of expression of women throughout the country, and detracts from freedom of expression of all.
LD: What is the role of freedom of expression in women's emancipation and empowerment?
TR: I think ending gender-based censorship is integral to the realisation of women's rights. It is also critical to the overall fight against censorship, to freedom of expression more broadly and to media freedom. The silencing of women demeans and undermines human rights and weakens democracy.
LD: Tell us something about ARTICLE 19. Why it has taken such nomenclature?
TR: ARTICLE 19 is an international, non-governmental human rights organisation established in 1986 as the world was seeing the demise of Apartheid and the Soviet Union. We take our name from Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and defend freedom of expression including freedom of information worldwide. Although we started in London, we now have offices in countries as diverse as Kazakhstan, Tunisia and Brazil. Our regional office for South Asia is based in Bangladesh and actively advocates for progressive RTI laws and campaigns for freedom of expression of journalists including rights of women journalists.
LD: What are the main challenges before us in materializing freedom of speech and expression?
TR: A strong political will is essential for ensuring constitutional commitments. Greater autonomy of the television and radio will promote freedom of expression and free flow of information.
LD: Thank you very much.
TR: You are welcome!