Ensuring the people's right to know
Sadrul Hasan Mazumder makes the case for ending the state's media monopoly
The state's obligation to promote pluralism and the free flow of information and ideas to the public, including through the media, does not permit it to interfere with the media's freedom of expression. The state-owned media are national assets: they belong to the entire community, not to the abstraction known as the state; nor to the government in office, or to its party.
If such national assets were to become the mouthpiece of any one, or combination of, the parties vying for power, democracy would be no more than a sham. An important implication of these guarantees is that bodies which exercise regulatory or other powers over broadcasters, such as broadcast authorities or boards of public broadcasters, must be independent.
After the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent and sovereign country, the government, by a President's Order made on September 13, 1972 took over the Pakistan Television Corporation Limited with the intention of ensuring better operation and services and named it Bangladesh Television. Article 9 of the said Order provided that: "The Government shall manage and administer the affairs of the undertaking vested in it under Article 4 in such manner as it deems fit."
The functions of the National Broadcasting Authority (NBA), which was formed on May 24, 1986 following President's Ordinance amongst others, were to control, manage, operate, and develop the radio and television media of Bangladesh, and to implement the policy of the government with respect to their broadcasts. As per provision of the Ordinance, no plans and programs could be implemented by the NBA without prior clearance from the government. The said Authority, in the discharge of its functions, was bound by such general or special instructions as issued by the government from time to time.
Mass media as means of governance
Most recently, the people of Bangladesh experienced the imperative role of the media in shaping political thoughts and ideas. In the modern age of Information Technology politics has largely changed into a mediated politics, experienced by most citizens through the broadcast and print media of their choice. Democracy in a country is, therefore, absolutely dependent on the media reports and interpretations of political events and issues, and on how the media itself influences the political processes and shapes public opinion. Thus, the media has become central to politics and public life in contemporary democracy.
In any democracy, access to the media is one of the key measures of power and equality. The media can shape power and participation in society in negative ways, by obscuring the motives and interests behind political decisions, or in positive ways, by promoting the involvement of people in those decisions. In this respect the media and governance equation becomes important.
In a democratic society, the role of the media assumes seminal importance. Democracy implies participative governance, and it is the media that informs people about various problems of society, which makes those wielding power on their behalf answerable to them. That the actions of the government and the state, and the efforts of competing parties and interests to exercise political power, should be underpinned and legitimized by critical scrutiny and informed debate facilitated by the institutions of the media is the assumption uniting the political spectrum.
Guaranteeing people's right to know
Public broadcasters are a vital component of the broadcasting sector in most countries, and will continue to be so long into the future. Historically, such broadcasters have often been the only national broadcast medium, and they continue to occupy a dominant position in many countries. Funded out of the public purse, they are a unique way of ensuring that quality programs covering a wide range of interests, and responding to the needs of all sectors of the population, are broadcast. They, thus, ensure diversity in programming and make an important contribution to satisfying the public's right to know.
The public broadcasting sector in Bangladesh has been misused as a propaganda tool of vested interests of the party in power. Bangladesh Radio and Bangladesh Television were established with the primary aim of rendering public service by the transmission of news and entertainment. But both institutions were, from their very inception, devalued by political appropriation, overt censorship and restraints. During the recent political turmoil the private-owned electronic media played an important role, but people at large found the public media behaving like in the past.
BTV and Bangladesh Betar as grass-roots voices
The broadcasting organization has the task of developing close links with the audience by answering the questions of some of the selected audience as regards songs or films. Thus, the audience, especially the people at the grass-roots become detached from the planning stages of programs, collection of information and the broadcasting process. A peculiar sense is pervasively present in these organizations, as if the honourable directors had become conscious, beforehand, of the whole gamut of feelings or emotions that the audience nurtures. So they make and transmit programs of their own choices. And the audience listens to them silently. Thus, the people's lips are sealed automatically. Never do they get the chance to express their reactions, to bring about a change in these organizations. Granted that the audience is ignorant, illiterate and passive, whereas the anchorman is omniscient, enlightened and active. A code of practice likely to enable the people to make a contribution to the interchange of information does not exist. The audience is, thus, deprived of the opportunity, or right, to have access to the facts, which constitute the foundation of mass media.
During the political government rule, radio and television seemed to the people to be "His Master's Voice" a totally mysterious thing. And the audience fell victim to their captivating allure. Radio stations gave birth to a sort of master-servant relationship in which the anchorman symbolizes a lord, and the audience his obedient servants. Since different means of mass communication couldn't get out of the ideological straitjacket of traditional ideas, they have failed to reflect the uniform, mass-oriented pattern of life.
But the truth of the matter is that planners and executives in the past were far from regarding mass media as the key to the development process, and imposed an undemocratic and unconstitutional decree upon the public. Consequently, the right of the common people to have access to information, which constitutes the mainstream of development, suffered a serious setback. The way the previous government delayed in making BTV and Bangladesh Betar real autonomous institutions exposed its dictatorial approach to the information system. The problems of the common people, and their thoughts and ideas, should be reflected in the state owned media, which is basically run with the tax money they pay.
Politics of autonomy
The government exerts a great deal of control over public broadcasters, using them as mouthpieces rather than independent source of information for the public. It is only when the independence of public broadcasters is guaranteed -- in law and in practice -- that they can truly operate as servants of the public, providing high quality information from a variety of sources. But the ill fate of the people of our country is that the last three governments attempted to devise mechanisms to retain control over the electronic media directly or indirectly. Since the independence of Bangladesh the electronic media has always been a propaganda machine in favour of the government.
Until 1991, the issue of autonomy of radio-TV did not come to the forefront of the societal discourse. Granting autonomy to Radio and Television was one of the main points in the joint declaration of the three alliances, announced after the fall of Ershad. On November 19, 1990, the three major political alliances gave a joint declaration to consolidate the movement against autocracy. Section 2(d) of the joint declaration states: "The mass media, including the radio and television, will have to be made into independent and autonomous bodies so that they become completely neutral."
After the democratic election, and with the restoration of parliamentary democracy in 1991 on the basis of consensus among major political parties, the issue of public broadcasting autonomy gained momentum. It was a great expectation of the general people involved in the anti-autocratic movement that autonomy of the electronic media would be granted, in line with the joint declaration. But we noticed with frustration that the BNP government did not uphold its commitment to grant autonomy to the electronic media during its tenure (1991-1996). The then minister for information publicly denounced the idea of neutrality of state-run media, and claimed the government's right to enjoy subjective coverage. Such an absolutely unprecedented argument in favour of a "loyal electronic media" from an elected government put an abrupt end to the hope for an autonomous public broadcasting service. However, the BNP government did form a commission to assess the matter. The commission prepared a set of recommendations to relax government control over the electronic media. But the recommendations were never published, let alone materialized.
Left Democratic Front leader, Rashed Khan Menon, moved a resolution seeking withdrawal of state control over the public broadcasting in the fifth parliament, where he proposed that the authority of the parliamentary committee on the ministry of information be strengthened to conduct the affairs of Betar-BTV. But the resolution was not passed.
The Awami League government constituted a 16-member "Commission for Framing Rules and Regulations for the Autonomy of Bangladesh Television (Radio-TV Autonomy Commission)" in September 1996.
Report at a glance
The commission finalized its report on June 30, 1997. The findings of the commission included both administrative and non-structural measures, and means of handling satellite and terrestrial measures, and FM radio bands. The recommendations of the commission included formation of a National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) independent of the government, and accountable only to a parliamentary committee on information. The NBC would administer both Bangladesh Betar and Bangladesh Television, including approval of their budgets, which would function and operate from their own income. A code of conduct would be signed between NBC and the private operators. A standard committee would be formed by NBC to monitor satellite and terrestrial programs, and take action against violation of the guidelines. In the area of news coverage, protocol value would replace news value. The commission, headed by former civil servant M. Asafuddoula, suggested that the president should appoint one chairman and six members of the National Broadcasting Commission.
Status of implementation
Instead of formation of a National Broadcasting Commission as recommended by the autonomy commission, the Awami League government formed two separate authorities, and the government itself would appoint members of those bodies. Each authority would have a chairman with some members to assist in running the affairs of the two public broadcasting agencies. Under the two draft laws approved by the cabinet -- Bangladesh Betar Authority Act, 2001 and Bangladesh Television Authority Act, 2001 -- the government could sack the chairman of both the authorities without giving any reason. Some members of the commission regretted that laws passed deviated significantly from the commission's recommendations.
During the October 1, 2001 general election, Awami League, in its election manifesto said: "The law enacted by us to make Radio and Bangladesh Television autonomous institutions free from party influences, will be made effective. The freedom of newspapers will be protected." BNP, however, did not pledge anything especially in its election manifesto, but criticized Awami League for using the state owned media for the party interest.
During the June 12, 1996, general election, Bangladesh Awami League promised "Autonomy to radio, TV and government-controlled news media. Privatisation of newspapers now owned by the government," while Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) promised that the policy for free flow of information would continue.
Frustratingly, both the major parties were in power during the last one and half decades, but have not fulfilled their commitment relating to autonomy of Bangladesh Radio and Bangladesh Television. Rather, we have observed that a government cancelled the previous government's rules and policies taken in this regard. It is our demand to the present government led by Dr. Fakhruddin that they take positive steps to fulfill the nation's desire of getting autonomy of radio and television in the real sense.
Sadrul Hasan Mazumder is a development activist.