EUROPEOPINIONPOLITICS

Freedom of press and protection of privacy

By Fazlur Rahman Chowdhury

It was Wednesday 18-July-2018, I was still on my morning breakfast listening to the TV news. The headline news was about a court verdict that gave £210,000.oo damages to Sir Cliff Richard for breach of his privacy by BBC. The story relates to a police search of Sir Richard’s house to look for suspected evidence of child pornography about two years back. The incident was reported by BBC in a manner as if Cliff is already proven guilty. The reporting went far beyond usual reporting of incidents under trial.

As I started with this case, I would also like to discuss certain relevant common practice and procedures followed in the United Kingdom. Matters relating to human rights and dignity are very important. In the UK, police is very careful as to how they deal with the accused. No one is guilty unless proved so in a court of law. The accused person is just like any other person on the street. The police will behave accordingly. In no way the accused person’s dignity or privacy will be hampered. The police will not divulge his full identity to the press. Any statement will normally say that about 45 years old man from Romford area has been taken into custody or something like that. More information may be given if the police decide to frame charges and prosecute the person. Police may call a press conference only after the verdict by the court as to how they pursued the case. At all stages the police will treat the accused with full respect and dignity. Police know their role very well – law enforcement and prevention of crime; protection of public but no unnecessary harassment.

In the United Kingdom we enjoy complete freedom of expression. Except for the monarch, we can criticise any person or his/ her actions bearing in mind that we avoid any personal attack, avoid telling lies for which we could be sued, avoid any statement that could lead to creation of rift or division between colour, creed, religion or disturb communal harmony. Those in politics are prepared to face all sorts of criticism. It is very common to see interesting cartoon being published in papers even about the prime minister. Nobody goes to jail for that.

Freedom of press is paramount in the United Kingdom. Corruptions by politicians or even by civil servants cannot be hidden for long. Investigating journalism finds it all and brings it to public. There is no place to hide. However, publication of any false report may lead to defamation or compensation by millions.

There is a new law in the UK giving public a right to know about things of public interest. Government departments and agencies have been told to give information to public so long it is not intended to cause any harm to any individual or any company or institute or the society. Matters relating to defence or other state secret may not be divulged. No information may be made public that may affect business success or balance. When two parties are in legal dispute, any information given to one party should be communicated to other party as well.

People in the United Kingdom also enjoy privacy. It is protected.  There are limits to public interest. If journalism crosses that line then they may have pay for it in a heavy way. That is how the balance is maintained. UK judiciary is the ultimate authority to deal with it; and in case of Sir Cliff Richard the judge has done it.

In the UK, there is an Ombudsman or what we call a watchdog for all these matters. Any aggrieved person may go to the relevant ombudsman for remedy. Courts shall always remain the final battle-ground. IPCC (Independent Police Complaint Commission) looks into complaints against police. Similar authorities exist for regulating press and information sector. There is also a Commissioner of Information to ensure that public can get to know things of public interest.

The UK model of dealing with all these sensitive matters is unique. The laws are backed up by appropriately competent administration. All watchdogs/ ombudsman for every sector are free of government influence. They work for ultimate public interest. Australia, Canada and New Zealand have similar procedures in place. They are pre-requisite for every democratic society. They are essential for establishing rule of law. Developing countries like Bangladesh can learn a lot from these systems and procedures. In fact they can seek to cooperation with UK on these matters.

The Bangladesh system of parading the accused persons in front of media- camera must stop. The Police, RAB and other law enforcement agencies must understand that they are not part of judiciary. They must stop media trial of accused persons. Killing of accused in the police custody in the name of gun fight or cross fire is the greatest crime committed by the government. This is barbaric. There is no room for such thing in civilised society. It must stop.

I am aware that Bangladesh has lot of barristers and solicitors/ lawyers trained in the UK. They have seen and known what I have been trying to state in this article. I call up on the law society or bar association in Bangladesh to take initiative to bring democratic reforms. Let us have a civilised and cultured society based on human rights, democratic values, equality and justice.

Fazlur Rahman Chowdhury was the Commandant of the Marine Academy and then Director General of Shipping in Bangladesh. He graduated from Juldia Marine Academy and World Maritime University. He pursued a career as a merchant ship cadet. He eventually retired from the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

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