Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Retrogressive Policy

It will throttle media, damage democracy and ultimately damage Bangladesh growth potential
MAHFUZ ANAM

In any conflict between free media and government, the latter wins in the short run while the former wins in the end. But a lot of valuable nation building time is lost in the intermittent period.

Government wins initially because it has all the fund and coercive machinery of state at its disposal to cajole, bribe, intimidate, threat and intern people and force its way.
Freedom and free media win in the end because people rally behind them-which is necessarily a time consuming process- and take them to victory.

This lesson of history our government does not seem to have learnt at their great cost and tragically ours too.

Free media has been one of the most significant gains of independent Bangladesh. It flourished after the restoration of democracy in December 1991. Today Bangladesh has a healthy media environment which is free, responsible and competitive.
Why a new Broadcast Policy?

Of the total media scene, the recent growth of Bangladesh’s broadcast media has been brilliant and stunning. Yes, it has many more hurdles to cross but the progress the broadcast media has made in the last two decades is nothing short of a miracle. Television has changed the way public is habituated to get news. Their “Live” coverage is now widely appreciated by the people and has added to the accountability process of the government. I recall with pride how our TV journalists earned the appreciation of the people of Bangladesh by giving round the clock coverage of all the recent mega events including that of Rana Plaza tragedy that helped to create a global support for our RMG sector. Broadcast media’s live and “from the spot” coverage has brought in a new freshness to news that the public would never have got otherwise.

There is a similar story of the FM radio.

On-line and digital media platforms’ story is slightly mixed, and cannot be covered in the present paper.

All this was achieved without the recently proposed “policy”. TV stations and FM radios were guided by the existing laws, policies, especially the guidelines given during issuing the broadcasting license. So if the existing rules and guidelines helped to create the TV and radio “revolutions” then why go for any new policy, especially when it runs the risk of thwarting the growth process. The only justification of a new policy can be that it will help the “growth of broadcasting industry” even further.

The government says that it was initiated at the request of the journalists’ community. This is a fact. But the demand was for a policy to be formulated by an Independent Broadcast Commission in consultation with all the stake holders especially media practitioners and owners. It was never conceived to be formulated by the bureaucrats with cosmetic representation from stake holders whose suggestions were ultimately largely ignored.

The Broadcast Policy
As the gazette notification shows there are seven main sections (অধ্যায়) of the broadcast policy.

The section on “aims and purpose” (উদ্দেশ্য লক্ষ্য) incorporate some core values that we share. The first five items from 1.2.1 upto 1.2.5 we welcome and endorse. However we feel that it has been unduly prolonged and there are many items that can either be deleted or merged with others.

The second sections deals with the Licensing process which says a detailed guideline on the licensing process will be worked by the Broadcast Commission as and when it is setup.
Sections three, four and five deal with content of the media channels. These sections have nearly 70 items.

The policy goes into details of content much of which can be subjected to multiple interpretations that can easily lead to distorting a free flow of information. Take for example section 3.2.1 which says “ anti-state and anti-public interest” news cannot be broadcast. We could not agree more. But who will decide what constitutes “anti-state and anti-public interest” news. In dictatorships, the government decides but democracy it is left to the media under the overarching principles of the constitution of every country.
Take the next provision 3.2.2. which says in “discussion programmes distorted or false information” should not be given. This any Broadcasting station worth its names will do on their own, as they do now.

Item 3.2.3 …….. We already broadcast speeches of the President and the Prime Minister. Why should there be the other impositions like emergency weather, health bulletin, press note and other “important national events that have public interest” Again anything of public interest the broadcasters will use because they want to hold their audience. So there is no need for such provisions.

3.5.1. says ……” voluntary work and development activities will have to be broadcast”
Why? Each channel will chose content according to its audience. Why should similar content be imposed on all channels?

The policy goes into details of such items as “Development work” “entertainment programmes” “sports and educational programmes etc.

One very dangerous aspect of the policy is the restrictions it imposes on advertising contents. While there must be guidelines on what can and what cannot be advertised, but the specific guidelines given in the policy will heavily restrict the flow of advertisement, affecting revenue of the broadcasters leading to weakening their financial viability. At present no advertisement is carried by TV stations that can be said to have necessitated such a policy.

Under section six deals with “other issues dealing with Broadcasting. This section contains some dangerous elements that can lead to restrictions on freedom of the media. Here are some examples along with our comments.

Item 5.1.4 (Print Bangla version) Any “military, non-military and government information” that can threaten the security of the State cannot be broadcast.

We can understand “military” information but why “non-military and government information” cannot be published.

Item 5.1.5 (print Bangla version) Anything demeaning to the armed forces, law enforcement agencies and government officials who can punish people for criminal offences can't be broadcast.

Imagine the absurdity of this policy. If it was already in place then we could not have written about the ten trucks arms haul where NSI and DGFI (according to confessions of accused) officials were directly involved.

We also could not have written about the 21 August attempted assassination of the present PM in which three former IGPs, two ex-NSI bosses and three former CID officials and high ranking officials of army and navy against whom charges have been framed.

According to policy approved by the cabinet we cannot write about death in police custody or torture, abuse of power by military, RAB, DGFI, intelligence agencies and government officials who can "punish". If this law is enforced then we can never write about cases like the recent 7 murders in Narayanganj where RAB officials were involved, the recent killing of a garment waste trader who was tortured to death by Mirpur Thana SI. We cannot report incidences of cross-fire, torture in remand, etc.

Would Limon – the innocent school boy who was bullet hit by RAB and who the latter tried for months to stigmatize as a terrorist- have ever received justice if media did not expose the RAB?

5.1.9 (use Bangla) Mutiny, chaos, violent incidents ... can't be aired?
"Mutiny" we understand and we may discuss how to cover it.

But what is meant by "chaos" and "violent incidents". According to this policy we cannot cover unrest or show footage of violence. It appears that this policy expects the TV stations to broadcast song and dance episodes while political activist uproot railway lines, burn our factories. So the extensive footage showing the opposition BNP-Jamaat throwing fire bombs into running buses during pre- 2014 election violence was allwrong” and the so-called “loggi- Baitha” related violence of the AL during their movement in 2006 would not allowed in the future?

In the context of our politics it is always the opposition that organizes agitational programmes that often results into violent clashes with the law enforcement agencies. To prevent its coverage will mean basically no coverage of opposition because it will depictchaos” and “violence”. Would coverage of the recent police action against workers demanding area pay that resulted into police beating them be permitted under the present policy?

5.1.7( use Bangla) Broadcasting anything that may hamper friendly relations with foreign countries is to be BANNED.

If this law existed then we couldn't have covered Myanmar’s sending warships to threaten our Navy that was protecting our maritime boundary back in 2007/8. We couldn't have covered the "Felany" incident or the regular incidents (now significantly lessoned) of border killing by Indian BSF. Is writing about our due share of Teesta Water and criticising India for responding to be permitted? Or it would be banned in the name of jeopardizing our friendly relations.

By the same law we could not have covered the news of killing, torture, rape, or illegal detention of our expatriate workers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia or any of the foreign countries where they work in the name of “friendly relations”. So all our expatriate workers, on whose remittance we flout the story of "huge reserve" are to be left at the mercy of whims and good wishes of host governments and our most timid and sometimes corrupt commercial attaches?

4.2.8 ( use Bangla) No scene can be shown in advertisements that are not environmentally friendly.

What is wrong with advertisement showing polluted rivers, uncollected garbage, or cutting of tree and urging people to desist from such practices?

6. Misleading and untrue information must be avoided. About “untrue” information, of course they should be avoided. If by chance unverified information is broadcast then immediate corrective steps are taken along with appropriate apology.

About "misleading" information can we match what goes in the name of debate inside the parliament? More often than not, it is the government and not the broadcasters that indulge in half truths and sometimes outright lies.

The truth is the Broadcast Policy passed by the cabinet has had two mindsets working behind it. One is that of bureaucracy who never feel comfortable with the free media.
Now that they have become more partisan than ever and see their future more in sycophancy and less in merit, they prefer a gagged press that will be less prone to doing investigative journalism.

The other mindset is of a political party that sees an “enemy” behind every critical voice. It feels vulnerable to a free spirited media culture and is foolishly moving towards throttling it.

Attitude towards a free media as expressed in the policy is counter to history and the unrelenting march forward of the human spirit that only freedom can fulfill. This policy totally misjudges and is completely under valuing the contribution that the free media have made in Bangladesh's growth over the last three decades under democracy.

Here I would like to draw the government’s attention to the writings of Amartya Sen who has brilliantly articulated how freedom, especially that of the media, assist the process of development. His classic work “Freedom and Development” should be an eye opener to those who have formulated this policy.

Under the section “Miscellaneous” the following provisions need to be examined.

7.1. It says each broadcasting organisation will have to prepare a “charter of duties” andeditorial policy” in light of the present policy announced by the government and nothing the broadcasting channels can do which will be in contradiction with it. After preparing such “charter” and “policy” the broadcasting bodies will have to have them “approved” by the broadcast commission, which will be set up in the future. While waiting the setting up of the commission, the information ministry will have the power to “approve” them.

This is a direct threat to the freedom of the media and practically usurps the power of theeditorial institution” of the media and related freedom of operation. The editors and media personnel will have no right to use their freedom and creativity in running their channels. This also gives direct power to the ministry- read bureaucrats and their political masters- to interfere in the work of the media.

7.3 (put Bangla text)…..
This has been drafted by people who have no idea how broadcast media works. Imagine every TV channel running to “appropriate authority” for vetting every advertisement that they will broadcast. It is as if TV professionals have no “qualification” to judge the appropriateness of ads and that government bureaucrats, who have no exposure to media’s work have better “qualification” to judge the content of the said ad.

7.4 (use Bangla)
It says that information ministry will be the ultimate judge of matters “not covered by this policy” and in all other matters relating to “other policies and laws” that may be existing that are not well known. This provision is vague, too sweeping and covers a vast area. Every ministry and departments may have their own “policy guidelines” which then may be interpreted by the information ministry in a manner that bureaucracy usually does, which is againstpeoples’ right to know”. This provision will greatly hamper the work of a free media.

7.5. Use Bangla
This is in no way conducive to free media freedom.

There is another serious danger that this policy poses, and one which has not been seriously discussed so far. If such a policy or something remotely close to it is adopted then our broadcast media runs the risk of becoming “dull and boring” Devoid of its freedom and chance to go for creative and entertaining programmes our channels will be producing programmes that will fail to attract the modern day viewers who are highly mobile and extremely demanding. This especially true for the young who are the “digital generation” and has no hesitation to shift their choice from channels that are boring to those who are more interesting and entertaining.

This will lead to audience shifting from our local channels to the foreign channels which, as we all know, are enormously popular in today Bangladesh. In fact our present TV channels have, in a big way, retrieved much of that shift through their modern programming. Bu such a policy, as prescribed, will force a switch of viewers which will be followed by a switch of advertisers. Such a shift will virtually cause a huge drop in audience and advertising. This may lead to the “slow death”[ of the local broadcasting industry.

We conclude by saying that we are not opposed to a Broadcasting policy per se. We want is a law that nurtures freedom and helps us to grow as a matured industry where maximum public service can be rendered while upholding the highest ethical standards of an ethical and free media.

To get such a law we think-as does the associations of journalists, association of broadcasters and others-that we should first have an Independent Broadcasting Commission that should frame a new law with the stakeholders as partners and not as victims.


Form the Independent Commission immediately and let it formulate the policy. Government has put the cart before the horse. In the end we say what we said at the start, government can throttle the media for the present, but free media will win in the end.

Mahfuz Anam is a celebrated editor of prestigious newsapaper The Daily Star and General Secretary of Bangladesh Editors Council