Drik Round-Table on Press Freedom
Humaira Fatima Jalil gives us a ring-side account of the round-table discussion and live web-cast
As I took my seat in the second round row, Shahidul Alam (Drik), after a short introduction, offered the floor to Afsan Chowdhury (Brac). Journalists, according to Mr. Chowdhury, regard themselves as social reformers -- good people who want to do good. It is an ideology that is quite doubtful.
However, Khaled Mohiuddin (BdNews24) saw no problem in journalists considering themselves as social reformers, and wondered how they were overlooking or ignoring their responsibilities to society.
Adding to this, Munni Saha (ATN Bangla) stated that we are at crossroads, so even if journalists are social reformers at present their roles are under tremendous restraint.
The next to speak from the panel was Probir Sikdar (Jonokontho) who viewed many journalists as victims of terrorism. As a journalist, Probir Sikdar felt that his freedom had been vastly curbed when he was not even allowed to name his assailants. So he felt perplexed concerning what he ought to say or protest about the safety of journalists when the newspaper he
works for apparently values his assailants' integrity and anonymity more than it does his attack and loss of legs. He vehemently stated: "I don't believe in the protection of journalists but in the safety of the masses, because I am part of that mass."
Mainul Islam Khan the next panelist to speak highlighted the repressive environment of the media at present. But he felt sure that if we work together than this environment might change.
Last but not least, Tipu Sultan (Prothom Alo) said that in most events such as this, speakers usually discuss the lack of safety and the repressions imposed by bureaucracy on journalists. Recently, editorial teams are briefed and it is high time to address this issue. Journalists are repressed, manipulated and usurped by their own media (professionally, financially, and socially) in the form of lack of job security, frequently changing rules of engagement, etc. And the main victims of this process are rural journalists who are ill-paid and pressurized from various sectors. Sadly the media they work in exploits journalists the most.
After these brief opinions of the panelists the audience present at the session was invited to exchange their views. The first contributor was Tanvir Siddiqi who emphasized the role of the corporate world (especially the mobile phone companies) on the media.
This naturally created a mixed reaction amongst the panelists. Khaled Mohiuddin felt that since newspapers feel that they are dependent on corporate magnets they printing a negative report about them. But media should realize that they have no reason to continue with this trend.
Munni Saha, on the other hand, disagreed with Khaled Mohiuddin stating that this may be possible for big media houses but not for smaller ones. And, moreover, even the big ones have never set such an example.
This was supported by Syed Ahmed, who said that it was true that most corruption cases cannot be often published because of pressure from government or society but in other cases they cannot be published against corporate giants because of the funding they provide the newspapers through advertisements.
This view was further supported by another member of the audience who stated that there is no solidarity amongst newspapers themselves, for if one newspaper makes a stand by not publishing something, the others will run the item. This in turn will lead to reallocation of funds.
Moving away from such a heated issue, Mayeen (Panos) reasserted that journalists lack social responsibilities. They tend to write on issues which they think the readers want to read. They do not raise their voices for the plight of the poor masses of this country and quotedhere the example of the rickshaw pullers of the city made redundant after the World Bank's demands.
It was at this point that Khaled wondered what the ultimate outcome of publishing negative reports on something lead to. Here he gave the example of his reporting about the previous government's law minister's dual role in a matter. It had no effect on the minister or his career. Rather he was invited to grace the special guest's seat to award some reporters at a prize giving ceremony.
Munni Saha however, did not completely agree with this. She calmly stated that journalists often let their frustrations come into play. She as a journalist didn't think that they have not accomplished anything so far. She thinks that journalists enjoyed a golden time from October 28, 2006 to January 11, 2007, a time they may never experience again; a time when they were free and had managed to create media awareness among their audience.
Things started to sizzle a bit when Khaled Mohiuddin answered back saying that everything had been planned beforehand and journalists were merely fed the information. They had no credit in the whole thing except for helping to install the state of emergency.
At this juncture of the session Naeem Mohaiemen introduced a new thread into the discussion -- the importance of the blog and internet in relation to press freedom.
He stated that bdnews24.com had been brought in for a specific reason because in today's world the net has become an important source for reportage. In earlier times in order to curb negative reporting the governments used to ban newspapers and magazines but now this is not possible because of the web editions.
In connection with this Khaled Mohiuddin responded that such tendencies have already begun quoting the example of the recent news in connection with the return of AL leader Sheikh Hasina from abroad. This was on their site from 5 pm to 9:30 pm, after which bdnews24.com was forced to bring it down after the incessant 26 calls from the authorities.
Tipu Sultan too, emphasized that the authorities have taken a resolution to block blogs and internets whenever they think the occasion would demand.
Afsan Chowdhury's interruption at this point stated that in spite of a lot of sophistication instilled in today's media, things are the same as before. Journalists have been beaten up and tortured since 1973 by every government. But then, it was his profession -- a profession that comprised certain risks and rewards. "My space is that of a citizen. I am more involved in media analysis. I am proud of the fact that the BBC has higher reporting standards, and it has given news that others have not. This is because it is an independent body."
Giving vent to his opinions he said that journalists have nowadays become the ultimate elites. They have more invitations than any ordinary man. He laughingly commented that it was only as a journalist that he got invited by the prime minister. The only reporting we have now is on Hasina and Khaleda -- as if nothing else matters. Why is no journalist interested in social reporting? The answer is quite simple: they are a party to the making of the state which is poor. Within Bangladesh there are several states, and journalists do not live in the state where the people live.
Just as the audience was absorbing such hardcore truths about their profession Mainul Islam brought before the guests another aspect of the consequences of bold journalism. Since the discussion was on press freedom he wished to commemorate and remember the journalist who was killed on March 5.
Jamaluddin's dead body was found beside the Rangamati Tourism Complex lake, and the official cause of his death was ascribed to suicide. The rope from which he was supposed to have hanged himself was very thin and the tree not strong enough for the purpose. And, typically, journalists were told not to write about this.
The panelists at this point of the discussion reminded all present how journalists found the invisible torture more difficult to deal with than physical ones.
Returning to the main discussion, Tipu Sultan shed insight on the works of contemporary journalists stating that failure to report properly lies with journalists themselves. They hardly try to overcome their lack of ability, talent, ethics, and training. They prefer dealing with issues that hold an appeal. At this point one guest stated the example of the workers protest in Khalishpur which was initially ignored by the media and only brought into focus when the protesters seemed to be succeeding in their attempt.
Andrew Biraj (New Age) next came up with the issue of the politics of the newspapers and electronic media themselves. What are the real issues and what are the things they don't reveal, he questioned. On the other hand, Momena Jalil (New Age) focused on the discrimination of photographers on the basis of sex and stated that as such the press is not free.
However, it was towards the end of the round table session that a most interesting view was expressed by Farooq Wasif (Shamakal). In his calm voice this individual truly summed up today's media environment.
In media there is always a hero and a villain. For journalists at present the villain is the militant Islamic terrorist. But so far they have never investigated the creation of this villainous figure. When the main newspapers -- the two big Bengali and English papers -- print long stories on these issues, they get translated and circulated in our neighbouring country. There is a new kind of embedded journalism in this country that did not even exist during the 1980s military regime.
We are at present existing in a sphere which resembles the "1001 Nights," and we have to keep telling stories every night so that we can stay alive. So that they cannot do away with us until we tell the truth. Like Probir Sikder said earlier: "Only an honest man can be courageous. I doubt that we are."
Earlier, when I had first taken my seat at the session, I had been prepared to hear the usual naggings of the reverent journalists. But this one turned out to be a real eye-opener, because not only were the panelists intriguing in their perceptions and views, but also the audience was truly spirited, outspoken and capable of offering a wide range of insights about their profession.
Though the discussion ranged from corporate domination of media, harassment, repression, censorship, insecurities to problems with ethics and lack of training yet there were many issues that need to be brought to light.
At least this was a successful attempt in establishing a platform for future grievances that need to be focused on for this session was not restricted amongst the audience present in the room but also open to the whole world through the live web-cast.
On World Press Freedom Day, a round-table discussion and live web-cast was organized by DrikNews, Drik, Givan Bela of Okno (Belgium).