|Volume 5 Issue 05 | May 2011|
Press Freedom: Still a Far Cry
AJM SHAFIUL ALAM BHUIYAN gives an overview of the history of press freedom in Bangladesh and how it can be ensured as our democracy matures.
As a nation we have been aspiring for a free press for the last 40 years, but it is still a far cry. The press freedom index of Reporters Sans Frontiers, an organisation which advocates for press freedom across the world, confirms this assessment. According to its 2010 Press Freedom Index, Finland is the best country in terms of press freedom while the USA and the UK stand on the 20th and 19th position respectively. Bangladesh stands on the 126th position. In South Asia, only Pakistan (141st) and Sri Lanka (158th) trail behind Bangladesh, while Maldives holds the best rank (52nd).
Reporters Sans Frontiers calculated the index based on the incidents which happened between September 2009 and September 2010. Its associates in different countries interviewed journalists, researchers, judges, jurists and human rights activists to collect data for this index. They recorded opinions on the following issues: torture of journalists, perpetrators of torture, right to information, censorship, self-censorship, control of the media and pressure on the media from the judiciary, business and the executive.
Bangladesh's ranking on press freedom requires an analysis of the obstacles to a free press in the country. Press freedom refers to the freedom of expression through newspapers, broadcasting and new media. And, the expression has to be for promoting and protecting the public interest.
Freedom of the press and democracy are interrelated. These two concepts were born in the European enlightenment tradition of the 18th century, a time which saw transformational changes in political and social thoughts. Science and reason took centre stage in understanding and explaining society. The enlightenment movement tried to rid people of ignorance and religious dogmatism and to build necessary social and political structures for a secular society. Enlightenment thinkers championed individual human right and suggested that a democratic government should protect this right and pave the way for a rational society. They emphasised the need for people's participation in political decision making. Ensuring voting right for every free human was deemed essential for people's participation. People need to be educated about the activities of the state and society for their rightful exercise of the voting right. Enlightenment thinkers bestowed this educational responsibility on teachers and journalists. A free press is a sine qua non for the journalists to educate people.
Although historically government has been treated as the main threat to press freedom since it has power to impose censorship on the press, I think the ownership of the media and its profit motive can also jeopardise press freedom. In discussing press freedom in contemporary Bangladesh, we need to discuss both state and non-state sources of threat to press freedom.
The Bangladeshi Constitution guarantees conditional press freedom. The Constitution in its Section 39 says:
"39. (1) Freedom of thought and conscience is guaranteed.
(2) Subject to any reasonable restrictions as imposed by law in the interests of the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of the court, defamation or incitement to an offence,
a. the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression, and freedom of the press guaranteed."
The Constitution, on the one hand, guarantees freedom of expression; on the other hand, says that the government can curb the freedom to protect state security, relation with friendly countries, law and order, morality and prestige of the court. These issues are so pervasive and fluid that these can be defined in many ways and the laws framed to protect these can be a boon to regulate the press. The country's legal structure has codified laws to deal with these. The laws are: The Special Powers Act, 1974; the Printing Presses and Publications (declaration and registration) Act, 1973; The Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898; The Penal Code, 1860; The Official Secrets Act, 1923; and The Contempt of Court Act, 1926.
The Official Secrets act may be used to hide government information while the Special Powers Act has provisions to punish journalists, shut down newspapers and impose censorship for prejudicial reporting. Empowered by the Printing Presses and Publications Act, a district magistrate can revoke any publication license and shut down a publication. The Penal Code has provisions to punish anyone including journalists to protect national security, law and order and prevent moral decay. The Code of Criminal Procedure empowers the government to ban any publication which is treasonous and hurts people's religious and social sentiments.
Given the ability of these laws to harm the press, critics call them black laws. A trace of the origin of these laws reveals that most of these originated during British and Pakistani colonial rules to suppress opposition against colonial and authoritarian rule. But they exist till today in the independent Bangladesh because various governments used these laws over the years to suppress opposition movements by controlling the press. Military regimes suppressed the press by imposing censorship, through the promulgation of martial law and applying the black laws, while democratically elected governments did the same by primarily using the black laws. On some occasions, the armed cadres of ruling parties have threatened, killed or tortured journalists.
In order to understand the role of democratically elected governments in shackling the press, we need to begin with the post-liberation Awami League government. Understanding the nature of press control during this government requires us to take the national and international contexts into consideration. History suggests that the early 1970s was a perplexing time for policy-makers of the new country which became independent from Pakistani occupation in 1971 after a nine month war. To develop a self-reliant nation, policy-makers were not certain what kind of economic policy, social policy, political system and media policy they would pursue. As a result, there had been many experiments with development policy and planning to take this new country forward. The experiments resulted in a one party system called BAKSAL with an official goal to create an exploitation free Bangladesh.
It seems that the policy-makers drew inspiration from socialism which emerged as a viable alternative to capitalism by the time. The Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China emerged as successful models of socialism and lent their hands to many southern countries to get free from colonial rule. During this decade many southern countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Egypt, Chile and India leaned toward socialism. In this international environment, Bangladeshi policy-makers might have thought it necessary to establish the BAKSAL to create a classless society and to control the press so that nobody could propagate any anti-BAKSAL viewpoints.
Consequently the government shut down all the newspapers by keeping four state-owned newspapers, including two Bengali and two English language newspapers, in circulation. It seems that the policy-makers were encouraged by the mind management techniques used in the Soviet Union and during the Cultural Revolution in China. However noble the goal of taking over newspaper publication by the state, it can kill the press. Later opposition politicians and media analysts have identified this act as a pernicious blow to freedom of expression. The government of Bangobondhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman receives a lot of criticism for this.
The assassination of Bangobondhu by a group of disgruntled military personnel in August 1975 initiated military rule in the country. Military rulers used different strategies to curb press freedom. For example, the governments of Justice Sayem and General Zia revoked the restriction on the private ownership of the press but suppressed the medium through martial law. The martial law declared by Justice Sayem in 1976 stipulated provisions ensuring penalties for people including journalists who would criticise or challenge martial law and martial law administrators.
Subsequent military governments used these martial law provisions to curb press freedom. However, General Ershad brought some amendments to the provisions by reducing the duration of the punishment to seven years of imprisonment from 10 years.
During military rules, military and other spy agencies would monitor the press and other media to stifle any efforts of publishing oppositional news. In some cases, military regimes did not hesitate to ban publication of newspapers. Military rule ended in 1990 following a mass movement but the press did not become free.
The democratically elected governments of Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina shut down news media. Khaleda began this practice by shutting down Ekushey Television, the first satellite television in the private sector. And the incumbent Hasina government shut down Channel One and Jamuna Television and the Daily Amar Desh. However, the Amar Desh resumed publication after a Supreme Court ruling. The democratically elected governments shut down the media outlets by using the above mentioned black laws. However, there were questions about the legality of their publication/transmission which the governments could have solved through other means instead of shutting them down. Since the governments did not pursue other means it is reasonable to doubt that they went after the media outlets to suppress opposition.
Both democratic and military regimes used some common techniques to control the press such as: rewarding pro-government newspapers in distributing government advertisements; threats to, torture and killing of journalists by ruling party cadres; and maintaining the state ownership of Bangladesh Television and Bangladesh Betar and using them as propaganda machines of the ruling party. Democratically elected governments promised many times to ensure freedom of the state owned broadcasters but have so far failed to keep this promise.
However, the post- 1990 democratic governments deregulated the media market to some extent. At the beginning of the 1990s, Bangladesh began moving toward the neoliberal free market economy under the influence of the deregulation movement which swung the western world, privatising state owned enterprises and liberalising the markets. The Bangladeshi media market got deregulated as a part of the deregulation of the economic sectors. People's demand to have alternatives to the government control electronic media also worked here.
The Bangladeshi media market got deregulated either through privatisation or liberalisation. The press experienced privatisation which concluded with the closure of government owned newspapers in the mid-1990s by leaving the reins of the press to private capital. Broadcasting went through liberalisation as private companies were allowed to own and operate radio stations and television channels alongside the state owned broadcast outlets.
Privatisation and liberalisation have restructured the ownership pattern in the media industry. Media scholars resort to two terms -- vertical integration and horizontal integration -- to explain such restructuring. Vertical integration takes place when a media company buys another media company which operates at a different level of the same media business. For example, when a newspaper company integrates with a newsprint mill or a newspaper distribution company, it creates a vertical integration. Alternatively, when a newspaper company integrates with a television company or a radio company or a film company or any other company, it generates a horizontal integration.
The Bangladeshi media market has primarily experienced horizontal integration. Companies involved with different types of businesses such as beverage, fast food and real estate have expanded their businesses to publishing newspapers and owning radio and television channels.
Vertical and horizontal integrations are strategies to ensure profit and control of the market. Ownership restructuring has impacted the media market a lot. The most positive outcome has been the creation of jobs and salary increase in journalism. The second impact has been the movement of the press from a political press to corporate press.
The press is categorised as political and corporate press based on the source of its birth and objectives. The history of origin of the press is almost identical across the world. In the first phase, Christian missionaries published newspapers to spread religious messages. In the second phase, political organisations published newspapers for political purposes. And, finally, newspapers emerged as business organisations. Many newspapers transformed into corporate entities in Bangladesh during the last decade.
Political press is biased to political viewpoints because of its political birth, but corporate press wants to be politically neutral and objective. The idea of objectivity is embedded in the corporatisation of the news media. Daniel Schiller, an expert on media and communication at the University of Illinois, has documented through his research how the idea of objectivity flourished as a part of the corporatisation of the media.
The main goal of corporate media is to make profit and foster the growth of such a society which helps profit making. Corporate media try to remain unbiased to political viewpoints because they want to sell content to everyone. However, they fail to remain objective in one area, that is in protecting the interests of ownership and advertisers. Advertisement is a key source of income for corporate media. Corporate media are critical of the government and government control of newspapers, but suppress many news stories and compel journalists to adopt self-censorship to protect the interests of ownership and advertisers.
Now the question we need to ask is: how can we free the press from the dual threat of government control and corporate control? Or is it really possible to do so? I don't know. But I know for sure we have to work for that since a free press is essential for a democratic society. There is no shortcut or straightforward way to ensure press freedom. We need separate approaches to deal with each threat.
We have discussed above that how a government will control the press depends on its nature. A military government does it by martial law while a democratically elected government does so by using the black laws.
Should we demand the repeal of the black laws? If we do so, policy-makers may say that if these laws do not exist anymore or are amended to keep the news media out of their purview, how will action be taken against a journalist or a news medium if it threatens state security or contributes to creating chaos in society? Given this argument, we need to focus more on the application of the laws to make sure that governments cannot use them to curtail press freedom.
Many democratic countries have laws to take actions against those who jeopardise national security and peace and stability. But mature democracies are more restrained in using such laws compared to new democracies. In a mature democracy, the government and opposition political parties are respectful of each other and show fewer tendencies to hurt each other and the foundation of the media is also strong there.
Our democracy has been trying to flourish for the last two decades. If it can take a permanent shape, governments' mentality to control the media will decline. A society becomes tolerant of opposing viewpoints with the practice of democracy for a long time. The experiences of mature democracies bear this out. Therefore, a movement to perpetuate democratic practices in our society should make the principal effort to ensure press freedom in the country. A civil society which is oppositional to both government interest and corporate interest can lead this movement.
Alongside civil society, journalists also have to prepare themselves as professionals to ensure press freedom. Journalists as a community have to raise their voice for press freedom, abide by the ethics of journalism and stay committed to protecting the public interest. Professional organisations of journalists such as Dhaka Journalist Union (DUJ), Bangladesh Federal Journalist Union (BFUJ) and the National Press Club can help instil professionalism in journalism. Unfortunately, journalists are also politically divided like other professional groups in the society. It is usual that conscious people like journalists will hold political ideologies but that should not happen at the cost of professionalism. They have to be united to ensure press freedom. The sooner they can do it, the better for the profession.
Finally, we need to think about the nature of ownership. We need to ponder the possibility of creating a new form of ownership structure which is neither run by profit motive nor dependent on advertising. Rather, it will be devoted to protect the public interest.
Dr. AJM Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan is Associate Professor in the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism at the University of Dhaka. He is a news media and Internet researcher.
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