Taming the Media
The opposition parties and civil society in Bangladesh say the Awami League government is trying to control the media through the new National Broadcasting Policy.
The Awami League government is accused of trying to control the media through the new National Broadcasting Policy.
“The Editors’ Council is concerned that the freedom of expression and free flow of information will be compromised by the recently announced National Broadcast Policy and various steps taken by the government. The council believes that the government wants to control the media with these steps.”
Bangladesh has a long history of political struggle for democracy and press freedom. But recently, the Awami League government attempted to break away from the tradition by adopting the National Broadcasting Policy 2014 that aims to regulate and control the media, particularly the electronic media. So what convinced the Sheikh Hasina regime to impose curbs on the media, particularly on TV channels that pursue an independent approach? Can the movement against the adoption of the NBP cause a serious threat to the Awami League government?
Earlier this year, the entire country was paralyzed for several weeks because of the political violence unleashed by the opposition following the controversial general elections. The boycott of the elections by the major opposition parties and the pyrrhic victory of the Awami League further deepened the political stalemate. Reservations expressed by the European Union, the Commonwealth and the United States about what they called ‘the uncontested general elections’ increased Sheikh Hasina’s predicament in terms of seeking political legitimacy at an international level. Except India, no other country endorsed the election results.
However, the opposition – the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) – failed to manipulate the situation in their favor and couldn’t launch a successful movement against the elections. The oaths taken by the members of the new assembly and the ensuing calm in Bangladesh’s political environment encouraged the Awami League government to launch what is being termed as an “assault” on the media.
According to the new media policy approved by the cabinet, TV and radio stations should not broadcast news “which is contrary to the country’s or the public interest, programs which undermine the reputation of the military or law enforcement officers or information which can harm good relations with a friendly country.” Furthermore, the NBP states that no information could be broadcast “if it violated anyone’s privacy, disrupted state security, went against public interest or hurt religious sentiment. No scene or statement that mocked or demeaned the armed forces and law enforcement agencies could be aired. The news and programs would have to uphold the ideology and spirit of the Liberation War, state policy and ideals.”
According to the official position taken by the government of Bangladesh, the new media policy is not aimed at putting curbs on the media and it only provides broad guidelines on how the media should perform according to the country’s national interests. Elaborating the official viewpoint, Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu said, “The law does not have any provision for punishment. The claim that the policy intends to strangle the media is completely baseless and imaginary.” But despite the clarification made by the government, civil society groups and journalists representing various media organizations consider the policy repugnant to press freedom and term it an attempt to curtail the independent stance of the media on various societal and other issues.
Why is Sheikh Hasina fearful of the media and how do the representatives of various newspapers and TV channels view the government’s act? One would recall that Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the founder of Bangladesh, had also imposed emergency in the country in 1974, banning all political parties and imposing severe restrictions on the media. Therefore, the perception that Awami League governments do not accept views which are critical to their policies is gaining credence in Bangladesh.
The executive director of Transparency International’s Bangladesh chapter, Iftekharuzzaman has strongly criticized the NBP. “The interpretation of the provisions may lead to serious restraint on media freedom. What is in the public interest and in the interest of the country can be subjectively interpreted. The provision in the policy involving restriction on news about the police and military officers can provide them blanket immunity from criticism,” he said.
While media persons are critical of the policy for obvious reasons, those having a neutral and non-partisan position have also expressed their reservations. It is widely perceived that after getting away with the sham elections, the AL government wants to eliminate every kind of threat, including the one posed by a free media, to ensure its stay in power. The tolerance level of Sheikh Hasina and other AL leaders was tested when some TV channels pursued a critical approach on the policies of the government and exposed its corruption and repressive acts. Instead of investigating the
charges, the government reacted by establishing its own brand of media commission.
Two major media organizations in Bangladesh, The Editor’s Council and the Association of TV Channel Owners, have taken a firm stand on the government’s new media policy, expressing their grievances about the government’s handling of the media.
One of their complaints is about the increasing number of attacks on newsmen in different parts of the country, including the attack on the office of Daily Inqilab. They have also registered their protest against the banning of a newspaper, Amar Desh, the arrest of its editor Mahmudur Rehman and the banning of two Islamic TV channels. Although these steps caused much resentment in the media, it was the NBP which compelled civil society groups and the media to pursue a hard line against the government’s deliberate attempt to curb the freedom of media.
One cannot deny the importance and relevance of the NBP if the intention of the AL government is to ensure responsibility, decency and ethical behavior. Unfortunately, in most developing countries, lack of professionalism is quite obvious and those responsible for publishing newspapers, magazines or running TV channels do not understand the importance of ethical journalism. The absence of laws to prevent the misuse of the media has created a culture where rhetoric, sweeping statements, nonserious behavior and unprofessional attitude is very common. This problem is not limited to Bangladesh and is, in fact, rampant in many South Asian countries. As a result, the credibility of many newspapers and TV channels is at stake. A code of conduct covering the print and the electronic media, enforcing basic ethical and professional rules is the need of the hour.
Bangladesh’s predicament in the post-election period is twofold. First is the issue of legitimacy of the AL government which is questionable considering the opposition’s boycott of the elections and the low turnout of voters. The second is the perception in the Bangladeshi civil society and in the opposition political circles that the AL government wants to tame the media, both print and electronic, after neutralizing the opposition parties.
This is why the president of the Editors’ Council made it clear that the “broadcasting policy would curtail the freedom of press and the people’s right to information as guaranteed by the constitution.” To express their resentment against the NBP, thousands of protestors belonging to the BNP staged a demonstration in Dhaka in which they blamed the AL government for trying to control the mass media by announcing the new broadcasting policy.
The solution to this crisis rests with the AL government. It needs to withdraw the NBP and come up with a broad policy to deal with the issues pertaining to the local media by taking all stakeholders on board instead of pursuing unilateral measures that are tantamount to curbing the freedom of the press.