|Volume 5 Issue 05 | May 2011|
Contemplating Media Freedom
G.M. SHAHIDUL ALAM suggests ways for the Bangladeshi media to go from 'not free' to 'partly free'.
James Madison, fourth president of the United States, one of the authors of the classic exposition of the American federal system, the Federalist Papers, and referred to as the "father of the US Constitution", once offered these thoughts that have wider and greater import for meaningful human existence than the message they carry for functioning liberal democracy: "A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives." They anticipate by about 150 years Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948: "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."
Madison, a drafter of the crucial First Amendment to the US Constitution, also foreshadowed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that was passed by the US Congress in 1966. It was a natural progression from UDHR, and guarantees American citizens, as well as foreign residents, access to the records of federal agencies, with certain caveats. In 1974, Congress revised the FOIA, requiring agencies to respond to requests for information within 10 days. In Bangladesh, the caretaker government, by a gazette notification on October 21, 2008, issued the Right to Information Ordinance (No. 50 of 2008). It is based loosely on the Indian Right to Information Act, 2005. On March 29, 2009, the current grand alliance government passed the Ordinance in the first session of parliament. This was a landmark piece of legislation, in theory, at least, and an integral part of human rights and the norms and spirit of liberal democracy, but it remains to be seen exactly how it works in practice. The reason for the waiting and watching has to do with the often perceptible gap existing between written words of high thoughts and noble intentions, and their unsatisfactory application in the arena they are supposed to concentrate on. After all, in the context of this write-up, Article 11 of the Bangladesh Constitution upholds fundamental human rights standard, while Article 39 guarantees freedom of thought and speech, including direct guarantee of freedom of the press. Yet, Freedom House, a respected independent watchdog organisation, in its Global Press Freedom Rankings for 2009, classified the Bangladesh press as being "Not Free".
Ostensibly, the media in Bangladesh is, or is made out to be, free, as the country's political leaders every so often declare it to be so, but, going by surveys carried out by organisations like Bangladesh Journalism Review, Bangladesh Manobadhikar Sangbadik Forum (BMSF), Odhikar and Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK), media professionals have been subjected to various forms of repression, harassment and physical harm from 2006 to 2010, marked by a steady annual increase, subjected, and this is particularly significant, at the hands of politicians at different hierarchical levels. From one standpoint, it eloquently portrays the dysfunctional political culture that has gripped the country, ironically, especially during the 20 year stretch of parliamentary democracy (notwithstanding the extended period of military-backed caretaker administration), and which seems to get entrenched even more solidly in the country's body politic with each passing year. Part of the explanation for this dismal state of affairs may be found in Freedom House's executive director Jennifer Windsor's linkage of freedom of press with a properly functioning democracy: "Freedom of expression is fundamental to all other freedoms. Rule of law, fair elections, minority rights, freedom of association, and accountable government all depend on an independent press which can fulfill its watchdog function."
It goes without saying that an independent media will not be the panacea for all the ills of liberal pluralist democracy, but having one will certainly help, provided a few other conditions are also met. Like having the general population in possession of a key ingredient of liberal democracy: a mindset for its essential elements, and which has become a part of every person's persona. This incorporation will, among other attributes, take in tolerance of other viewpoints, however repugnant to one's own. Sadly for the nation, an intolerant mindset along solidly entrenched partisan lines seems to have taken a vice-like grip on the political elements over the last 20 years, and the disastrous results for healthy, properly functioning political institutions and good governance are there for all to see, and, for those who have been privy to a decent political culture 40 years and before, making them shake their heads in despair and resignation. But that is a topic left for deeper exploration for another time.
For the purposes of this write-up, we note the important point that, largely because of the nature of politics and that of the media, a degree of friction may be expected between politicians and media professionals in any society, other than the absolute totalitarian systems. This is not necessarily an unhealthy state of things; on the contrary, it can contribute to a healthy, vibrant democratic system by a responsible watchdog media keeping errant politicians in check from unwarranted and uncalled-for transgressions from their functional parameters. In Bangladesh, however, there exists a scenario of manifest antagonism, not infrequently leading to harassment and violence, between the politicians at different levels of governmental and political party hierarchy and the media professionals.
And, do the politicians have cause for holding grudges against the media? It has to be said that, notwithstanding the vendetta at times waged by politicians in power against real or perceived opposition media professionals and establishments, we have seen examples that are a microcosm of a growing trend in "yellow journalism" over the years, worryingly during the stretch of parliamentary democracy that had begun in 1991. Although, thankfully, the thought has been shelved, the Information Minister of the current government had actually, in 2010, considered plans to introduce new law to target "yellow journalism" because "newspapers and television and radio channels that are making false and misleading news to tarnish the image of ministers, lawmakers, the government and the country are in fact doing yellow journalism." In fact, the politicians' diatribe against the media reached the floor of the Jatiyo Sangsad that same year.
In a word, the politicians' ire at the media people boils down to their perception that the Fourth Estate professionals were not acting responsibly. And, responsibility should lie at the very heart of first-rate, objective (not necessarily impartial) journalism, something that is absolutely essential for the spirit and practice of liberal democracy. In Robert McChesney's words, "…the media in a democracy must foster deliberation and diversity, and ensure accountability." It can do so if it acts responsibly in relation to society, the government, individuals, and to itself. Acting responsibly means not attacking institutions and individuals out of pure spite, not resorting to spurious or inordinately biased reporting, and other negative journalism that fall under the collective rubric of "yellow journalism". Towards the end of 2010, senior journalists and media editors of Bangladesh themselves recognised that the problem of unethical practice had crept into the field of journalism, even as politicians were viciously attacking it and money was influencing it in a big way. The point to note here is that, politicians develop negative feelings about the media precisely because of their real or perceived grievances against unethical practice, while the media, like elsewhere, has almost inevitably come under the patronage of big money in order to be in the big leagues.
So, ethics it is, or some erosion of it, because I do not believe for a moment that any component of the media has turned completely unethical. Randall McCutcheon, James Schaffer, and Joseph R Wycoff completely establish the inseparability of ethics and responsibility: "Ethics can be a dangerous word to use because it can mean different things to different people. However, few would disagree with the observation that ethics refers to a person's sense of right and wrong…as ethical communication puts a high premium on using his or her words constructively and promoting what's right… Responsibility goes hand in hand with ethics… Quite simply, being responsible means that you will be answerable and accountable for your actions and that you will get done what you say you will. If you are responsible, people can count on you -- your word means something" (Communication Matters). To reiterate, responsible journalism will serve the cause of liberal pluralist democracy as much as responsible politicians can. However, both these vital cogs in the machinery of state and government have been suffering from degrees of dysfunction, and, to me, their common thread lies in both, or a section of them, not having been able to develop a mindset for the norms and spirit of liberal democracy, to make its essential values, tolerance of opposing viewpoints being one, an integral part of the persona. The media professionals (no less than the politicians) will have to lead by example in developing the mindset for the democratic spirit within him/herself.
A significant step has recently been taken to help clear some of the air of mistrust that exists between the media professionals and the politicians, which should help in the promotion of a healthy political culture in the country. The Jatiyo Sangsad passed a bill on February 2, 2011 eliminating a provision of "direct arrest warrant" against journalists for writing or saying anything defamatory, although, as an obvious precautionary measure against putative free-for-all journalism, the amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) introduced a provision for issuing summons against journalists for any defamatory comments and publications. This is to be appreciated, especially when perceived against an alarming global trend that has seen media freedom suffer a decline for the fifth consecutive year in 2010, with the most pronounced setbacks taking place in Latin America and the former Soviet Union (Freedom House survey of Freedom in the World 2011). And, also, when one considers that restrictions on press freedom are intensifying in important emerging democracies like South Africa, Namibia, the Philippines and Senegal, all of whose media situation has been downgraded to Partly Free in 2010 from Free the year before. The pitfalls of media freedom even in democracies are real, and Bangladesh has to remain constantly vigilant against any such trap, primarily by the media itself practising responsible, ethical journalism.
Of course, institutional checks and balances to guard against irresponsible journalism are in place, but, thus far, they have been rather ineffective. The Bangladesh Press Council (BPC) Act of 1974 entrusted the BPC with responsibility for devising a code of conduct for maintaining high professional standards. That provision is articulated in Article 12(1) of BPC Act: "Where, on receipt of a complaint made to it or otherwise, the Council has reason to believe that a newspaper or news agency has offended against the standard of journalistic ethics or public taste or that an editor or a working journalist has committed any professional misconduct or a breach of the code of journalistic ethics, the Council may…warn, admonish or censure the newspaper, the news agency, the editor or the journalist, as the case may be."
The BPC Act held the BPC responsible for protecting the fundamental rights of citizens against any "unscrupulous or irresponsible" newspaper or journalist. In practice, it would help the press avoid a conflict with the government through self-censorship. However, while it provides the right of journalists to confidentiality of a news source, it has no power of action against the government for transgressing freedom of the press, nor does the government consult it before taking any action against a newspaper or journalist. Even with its limitations in relation to the government, BPC has been given enough powers to curb yellow journalism, and, thereby, help the media in avoiding conflict with the government through the adoption of self-censorship. But it will not, or cannot, exercise those powers largely as a result of the media choosing to ignore it and any stricture it may give against it. In fact, on August 26, 2010, the parliamentary standing committee on information ministry derided the quasi-judicial body as being a "paper tiger", and declared that it was going to recommend that the government reorganise the BPC and amend the Press Council Act 1974 and Press Council Regulation 1980. "It is the task of press council," observed the committee's chief, "to preserve freedom of press and improve standard of the newspapers and news agencies. But it has failed to achieve that so far."
Giving the BPC more teeth would be laudable, and, ultimately productive, provided the political authority adds its full weight to its functioning and decisions. Otherwise, Bangladesh will continue to suffer through the media hurting individual citizens and institutions with damaging spurious reports and commentaries, and, then, if redress is sought at BPC, treating the quasi-judicial body with impunity. That would run counter to the very core of democratic values, because fair dealing will have been denied to the aggrieved. The media will have to remind itself that the democratic political system's well-being hinges significantly on the press transmitting political, social and cultural information to society efficiently, accurately and completely. If it flouts democratic norms, then it would not likely be able to prevent or expose, or may even be accused of colluding with, deliberate structural pressures, which are not infrequently exerted by political powers in emerging democracies, that prevent individuals from ascertaining the connection between media and democracy. But, if it heals itself of the eminently curable little maladies afflicting its self, then, along with positive government initiatives towards making the media a vibrant institution upholding the spirit and norms of liberal pluralist democracy, Bangladesh will surely better the rating of its media being classified as being Partly Free in 2010, which represents a significant progress from 2009, when it was rated as Not Free.
Dr. G.M. Shahidul Alam is Head, Media and Communication department, Independent University, Bangladesh.
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