|Volume 6 | Issue 04 | April 2012|
Priority of the Media: Profit, politics or the public?
M. GOLAM RAHMAN scrutinises the political and profit-making motives of the media.
Newspapers and television channels sell news as commodity, earn revenue on advertisements, often unethically and sometimes forget to provide service to the society. Our recent experience of some newspapers, as reflected in the poor quality of their content, could be adjudged since they have been placed there only for profit, following neither any professional ethics nor journalistic standard. Some newspapers are published by big business houses and therefore follow some sort of independent line but their freedom is heavily restricted due to their financial dependence on the authorities. There are papers attacking personalities and organisations in the name of freedom of press.
Traditionally, media professionals in general are playing a significant role in enlarging the political space in Bangladesh, a space that has been dominated by intolerant elements encouraged by political sponsorship. In Bangladesh, when we review the mass media scenario we understand that the '90s were characterised by 'intolerance and dogmatism among the ruling party and opposition political activists and police.'
It has been argued that it is difficult for journalists to be properly independent when their reports are interpreted as partisan in a highly politicised society nowadays. It is evident that the citizens in Bangladesh express criticism of the government. The majority of papers during the 1990s supported the overall policies of the government but published critical reports on government policies and activities, including those of the Prime Minister. On the other hand in the early '80s because of the political turmoil and imposition of Martial Law, the newspapers under severe restrictions could not present free opinions. Most of the newspapers intended to publish reports of political activities. "Press advice" given by PID or other authorities were in a way censorship to the newspapers. There were instructions on what should not be published and also what should be published and how they should be published.
In view of the foregoing, I quote some personal notes of late Mr Bazlur Rahman, former Editor of a daily newspaper of our country as examples. These are of historical significance in the context of media freedom and politics on media. PID instructed on May 11, 1982, (1) Photograph of CMLA's visit to Smritisoudha on the first page, (2) Photograph of Advisor of Safia Khatun, to be printed on the lower part of the front page, (3) Photograph of Regional Martial Law Administrator's conference to be printed on the eighth page, (4) Photograph of Ambassador of Rumania with the CMLA to be printed on the eighth page. On May 7, 1982, instructions were given as: (1) Photograph of General Ershad addressing at Kamalapur Boudha Mandir to be placed on the upper corner of the eighth page, (2) News on that would be on the first page in single column, (3) Adviser Mahbubur Rahman's inaugural photograph of a painting show at Shilpakala Academy to be printed on the eighth page on double column. On September 16, 1982, it was instructed that news of the arrest of a student for displaying poster at the university was not to be published until the police provided that news, then again at 9pm instructions for nothing to be published on this issue were given. On June12, 1983, among all the activities of CMLA, the news of meeting primary teachers was to be given high priority and the headline was told to be, "Primary teachers were government employees and they will remain so: Ershad." On May 29, 1983, the news of death of a custom officer at the airport was told not to be published and same was instructed on July 7, 1983, about the news on the qulkhani of a pilot and the issue regarding his insurance money. I think many people still remember the instruction that was given about poems written by H. M. Ershad to be published on the first page of the newspapers. There are a lot of instances to quote. Interestingly, that is why during that time most of the newspapers looked similar. The problems of covering those news were multiple. There were anti-government political activities and when the government could not control such activities of the political parties, student organisations, workers' organisations, etc. restrictions of printing reports on them were issued in newspapers. Because meetings, processions, and demonstrations were banned, publication of the ones that still occurred were restricted. This complex situation for covering political news by the newspapers was a real professional challenge. We have achieved a more democratic atmosphere at present, but still we are craving for a more responsible media to come.
When the Parliament is not an effective place for discussion due to the continuous absence of opposition the mass media also are suffering from covering the political debate in it. But newspapers and TV channels are accommodating debates between the leaders of several political parties and members of civil society. Often some of the discussants take a side in line with a specific political alliance and that becomes predetermined by the audience.
Broadcasting parliamentary proceedings freely through the channel of radio, introduced after the 1996 elections, has been an appreciable exercise to reach the people. Selective broadcast of parliamentary discussions through television had been introduced but on the criticism of the opposition it was stopped during the tenure of Awami League regime. Telecasting of parliament round-ups is still a long way to go in the face of accusation of monopoly of TV news and views by ruling political elite in the late '90s. The main opposition party did not allow BTV camera in its political activities on protest of the 'one sided version' of the government. Ruling party activities as well as that of the government occupied the major time of news broadcast by both radio and television during that period. Awami League government since its takeover in 2009 allowed BTV and Bangladesh Betar to broadcast live the proceedings of the Sangsad.
Broadcast media's autonomy as promised by Awami League before election, has not materialised. The print and electronic media, especially television, have actually been enjoying very rapid growth over the last 10 years. The government has permitted several FM radio stations and also issued 14 licences to Community Radio in different parts of the country to facilitate participation of local people to share and understand their own problems and address the proper authorities. The role of media in politics and maintaining objectivity is a big load to carry with responsibility. Therefore the democratic culture of media has to be broadened and sustained.
Obviously, ownership structure has an impact on determining programme content and its output. Developed countries' situation for public service information is different. They can maintain diversity and pluralism in their programmes. Our private channel owners think first of their business profit and pressure from government and political parties. During formulating planning and strategies or building programme content, they become cautious as they fear the government might choose to shut down the channel. Although private channels never admit this, they have constraints from different quarters in pursuing their activities. Electronic media -- especially television -- has been enjoying rapid growth over the last decade. But the first private TV channel, ETV with terrestrial broadcast facilities opened during the previous regime, was shut down and its license cancelled by a verdict of the Supreme Court in 2002. In this regard, we have found some opinions on the historical event as reflected in newspapers. In Letters to the Editor published in The Daily Star, one wrote, "I think your comments about closing ETV being a legal victory is wrong. This is a clear case of selective justice. They closed ETV because ETV won't be a spokesman for the government. This has nothing to do with our legal system taking care of what's not right. If that was the case, half the damn politicians would be in jail."2 Another letter addressed on that issue on the same day said, "This is in reference to your editorial of July 5. It seems that the judges of this court are like the fathers of an illegitimate baby who wishes to save their honour by destroying the innocent wonder baby -- ETV, rather than punishing the wrong do-er…."3 So surviviving rather than meeting the needs of the audience is a major goal of the media.
From the inception of television in Bangladesh (the then East Pakistan) there has been a credibility gap among the audience especially in terms of news broadcast. There was a time when BTV news services had to depend on radio news broadcast and Bangladesh Sangbad Sanstha (BSS) reports. There was not even a reporting section at BTV which could employ news gatherers. They had a few camerapersons who used to capture pictures of ministers' activities and telecast with the said copies.
In a democratic culture, media should judge news on the basis of 'news value' not only the protocol of the persons. We observed the performance of electronic media even during the period of three caretaker governments was not that satisfactory. It was observed that the two major political party chiefs were given more or less equal time just to "balance" them not by judging news value of their activities. Similar coverage was observed in the government regulated Trust newspapers during those days. This sort of balance without depending on news value judgment confused the objectivity of coverage and provided a foggy picture of media freedom. From the very beginning, television in this country only earned mistrust of people.
The inaugural day of television, December 25,1964, opposition candidate for the President, Ms Fatema Jinnah's public meeting at the Paltan Maidan was crowded with processions chanting slogans adjacent to the surrounding DIT building, the TV studio. The then President of Pakistan, Ayub Khan along with the Governor, Monaem Khan arrived at the studio to inaugurate the TV station. The arrival came live on TV but not a word about the opposition candidate's meeting. During that time, the radio news was allowed for transmission through television and that radio news did not contain anything on the opposition leader's mass meeting. That very journey of electronic media in our country religiously followed the path of incredible news publicity. What the audience read in the newspapers was not broadcast on television or the radio; this paradox lent the electronic media a lack of objectivity and "zero" credibility. The legacy carried on through several regimes in Bangladesh.
More than a dozen private TV channels are operating in the country, with some more waiting for the green signal for transmission. BTV, the only government-owned and administered TV channel, and known as structurally a biased institution, serves the audience with public service information at most. At the same time it serves the purposes of incumbent government. People working inside the institution refrain from telecasting news, views or other programmes which criticise the party in power. BTV follows a traditional policy which is still unwritten. They have some confidential guidelines and code of conduct that only people working inside know about.
Although TV is still an urban medium, it is fast expanding to the rural areas. Its programme and accessibility should be extended to rural people through government as well as private sponsorships. About 70-75% of our population are farmers who contribute one-third of gross domestic product (GDP) but how much of their life is reflected on TV or other mass media? Radio broadcasts less than 5% of its programmes for farmers while BTV's allocation is similarly low.
Audiences who have satellite access enjoy a number of channels. They are mostly glued to the entertainment channels, missing out on the informative and educative programmes. As a result, the scope and opportunity for dissemination of public service information and news for motivation and behaviour change are not taking place. To get correct news, views and other programmes the audience can easily compare them among different channels that are available 24 hours.
It seems the profit orientation of the private channels takes away the commitment for public information service broadcast. The pressure of satellite channels and their programme-patterns move the programme producers in the country to be more likely of them but not of our originality and soul-searching. Not the case of television alone, newspapers are also stuck up in a knee-deep mud of profits by which they almost forgot the tradition of struggle and social commitment by some of our newspapers. If we look back to our pioneer-journalists like Tofazzal Hossain (Manik Mia), Jahur Hossain Chowdhury and Mowlana Akram Khan, they fought for the national cause and not for corporate money. The ownership of newspapers and media is no more a social commitment, which we have experienced before, rather it has become a money spinning machine. The newly floated media for that matter are alluring media personnel through high salary and many of them cannot maintain that promise. Some of those media are in real trouble to sustain their businesses.
Television has a very strong and positive role to play -- to educate, create awareness and motivate people. It helps to build a more informed society. It has a very strong impact on that section of people who hold opinion, for example, the middle class and urban people. If there is an impact, the question that comes next is how much the programme content can fulfill their demands and desires.
In a study on satellite TV channels' impact on viewers by Rahman and Ullah4 a few years back, it has been observed that audience who enjoy satellite channels, most often use English and Hindi words in their language; they also like to follow the fashion and lifestyle portrayed in the TV programmes. At the same time, the invasion of foreign culture has a great impact on the local culture. A sense of awareness and responsibility to accept or avoid exotic culture could be developed among the audience. The audience should understand the new genre of culture introduced by ourselves as well as foreign channels.
Professional journalist bodies are now polarised into the line of the two mainstream political parties. The worst thing that has happened to the freedom of press is this division among the journalists' union. This has given the owners as well as the government a golden opportunity to dictate terms. In the profession, the immediate casualty of this division is the job security of the working journalists. It is obvious, when one is not secure about her/his job, she cannot express her/his opinion freely and fairly.
With the advancement of technology, the print medium is competing with the electronic media and often it indulges in an uneven race. Electronic media engages our audience with mostly entertainment and some news while the print medium serves news and a bit of entertainment. Most of the media try to fill up time by supplying entertainment in a deviated and unhealthy form. It seems media is degenerating our youth and distorting facts and overlooking objectivity in coverage as well as over-emphasising entertainment that imitates the West and ignoring ground realities of a developing nation. The trend in political participation among the young people is not very positive and the media failed to make headway to encourage them to generate interest of leadership values. Politics of the nation has not been able to engage our meritorious youth to be attracted in it. Can the media move beyond its wheel of operation based on politics and profit and serve the public instead?
Rahman, M. Golam, "Politics, Power and Mass Media in Contemporary Bangladesh", Jonoporisore Gonomadhyom o onnanno Prosongo, (MMC Seminar Collection-2), Eds: Kamrul Hassan Monju and Zannatul Ferdous, Dhaka, Mass-line Media Centre, 2003, pp. 415-16.
Dr. M. Golam Rahman is Professor, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.
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