Dr. Gitiara Nasreen, Photo Courtesy
With World Press Freedom Day just behind us, Forum takes a look at the state of media freedom, ethics and safety of journalists in Bangladesh. For a democratic country in peacetime, we are not faring so well, Professor Dr. Gitiara Nasreen, Chairperson of the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka, tells TAMANNA KHAN, and a comprehensive code of conduct, research, training and effective monitoring mechanisms have become essential for the rapidly expanding media industry.
Tamanna Khan (TK): What is the media's role in a democratic society? Has the media played any role in strengthening democracy in Bangladesh? If so, to what extent?
Gitiara Nasreen (GN): Undoubtedly media plays a crucial role in a democratic society as it ensures citizen's right and access to information. People need to know their rights; they should be able to question and ensure their rights. Media understands that citizen's participation is the key to a democratic society. It acts as the medium between policymakers, legislative bodies or other stakeholders and the people. Media has played an important role in all the critical historical moments in Bangladesh. At different times, media has pointed out the role that should be played by different political parties. We find media vocal on a number of other issues too such as corruption and violence. Media helps create awareness on these issues.
TK: At present, to what extent do the media enjoy freedom in Bangladesh?
GN: It is often claimed that Bangladesh enjoys a lot of press freedom. Such claims are especially/usually made by ruling parties. However, when we consider cases of defamation and legal charges against journalists, self-censorship by media houses through which they themselves refrain from publishing news such as on corruption and irregularities of business organisations or corporate bodies or even individuals and public institutions; when journalists are harassed, sued, abused or threatened, it does not portray a satisfactory level of press freedom. Now the question may arise that if there is no freedom then how can there be so many media houses, both print and electronic? If we take a look at the total picture, the number of media houses and the quality of information that we get do not actually match. So there must be lack of press freedom or else why would it not match?
TK: What is the status of press freedom in Bangladesh compared to other South Asian nations?
GN: According to 2010-12 report of the Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders) Bhutan stands 70th, Maldives 73rd, Nepal 106th, Bangladesh 129th, India 131st, Afghanistan 150th, Pakistan 151st and Sri Lanka 163rd in terms of press freedom. The prevalence of conflict, acts of censorship and physical attacks on journalists in many countries of South Asia have had a direct impact on the extent of press freedom. The risk is especially prevalent in Pakistan, now the world's most dangerous country for media workers. In Afghanistan, continuing conflicts do not allow very much of a free space to journalists. Threat levels for media remain high in conflict-prone zones in India. The media environment in Bhutan continued to be limited and government influence on private media are evident in many instances, however the concerns expressed by many paved the way to a better situation. The reason why Maldives and Bhutan are doing better in ranking is their sincere efforts towards democratisation. It's important to understand the status of media freedom within the political framework under which it operates. In this context, Bangladesh's position at 129th is not at all satisfactory. Bangladesh is not in a conflict situation. If we do not take the conflict in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) into account -- in fact media do not even report very much on CHT -- then there is no conflict situation in Bangladesh. Therefore, reporters are reporting in a democratic society in peacetime and yet the index is so low. In Bangladesh, such a situation is not acceptable.
TK: Can press freedom be abused? Should there be any censorship on the media imposed by governments?
GN: Yes, press freedom can be abused, caused by the absence of a code of conduct and lack of training on professional ethics and morality, but you cannot just stop something in the fear that it may be abused, especially in case of journalism, which is so crucial for a democratic society. Freedom cannot be stopped. The question of censorship does not go with press freedom, not even with our constitutional rights. If there is fear of abuse then professionalism and code of conduct in journalism should be ensured. It has been in discussion for a long time that media houses should have their own codes of conduct. It will not be something imposed. It will be prepared by the media houses for themselves for their own use.
TK: What are the most crucial ethical issues with regard to the Bangladeshi media today? How does political inclination or corporate ownership of media houses affect the overall scenario?
There are a number of limitations. Political inclination, for one, mars the media's objectivity. Media loses its credibility with the audience. The conflict among media owners, too, has reached such a crude level that it even appears as news reports. Then there is the question of taking gifts, favours, foreign trips, etc., from sources. This is not at all ethical. Media is violating ethics through political inclination, conflict among themselves and sensationalisation of news especially with regards to women and children. In many instances, important information of public interest, serious issues, for example, the attack on the Hindu community recently has been totally blacked out from the media. Many major media houses have not reported it. There are no investigative reports on serious public questions about corporate houses, for example, the operations of cell phone companies. There are complaints that consumers have approached media houses with fungi-infected bottled mineral water but that has not been reported. Media is thus compromising its responsibility for commercialisation, to get advertisements. These are appalling violations. Newscasts are supposed to inform; not to disinform, not to deceive, and not to distort.
TK: How safe are journalists in Bangladesh and what is your opinion about the absence of justice when it comes to journalist killings?
GN: In a statement, Director-General to the intergovernmental council of the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) has said that “safety of journalists is essential to protect the right of all citizens to reliable information and the right of journalists to provide it without fearing for their security. It is an obligation of the State and of the society to create and maintain the conditions needed for these fundamental human rights to be enjoyed by all. Therefore, the possibility for journalists to carry out their journalistic investigations and report without fear of reprisal should be guaranteed by both state and non-state actors… However, when crimes against journalists go unpunished, the State's commitment to fundamental freedoms and its willingness to enforce the rule of law become unconvincing.”
Sadly, in Bangladesh the frequency of acts of violence against journalists is increasing. The recent incident of the killings of Sagar-Runi without headway in the violent murders after months is a glaring example of the absence of a safe environment for journalists. Compared to many other countries where an unsafe situation is primarily caused by war/conflicts, in Bangladesh the casualties are local journalists working in their own communities in peacetime, covering local stories! While it can be considered the most brutal, the Sagar-Runi murder is just the tip of the iceberg. Media professionals face many other forms of threats such as intimidation, harassment and physical assaults in Bangladesh. Besides, there has not been a single trial of any journalist killing, so what kind of situation does it create? If I put it in the light of the IPDC director general's statement, it creates an atmosphere of fear. Journalists are considered by the society as its voice. When these voices are gagged, journalists suffer from violence and justice is denied, it creates an atmosphere of fear among people. They believe themselves vulnerable and do not believe that law and order exists.
TK: How unified are the journalist associations and media stakeholders about their rights and ensuring journalist safety?
GN: Division along political lines is the first and biggest concern. The Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) and the National Press Club are now divided into two groups. One is supporting the ruling party and the other is supporting the major opposition party. Therefore, it is now quite difficult for the journalists to raise an united voice against the suppression of media and journalists, or any other public interest issues for that matter.
TK: What is your opinion about the level of gender sensitivity of our media? What can be done to improve the scenario?
GN: The question of gender sensitivity has been there for a long time. Audience and women's rights groups have raised concerns about this issue and we have witnessed its reflection to some extent in a number of media houses, in our Women Development Policy and in the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act. Compared to other situations, I think the media is improving on the gender question. However, there is much to be done, and to pave the way a gender sensitive code of conduct should be formulated, installed, made known through training and continuously monitored for effective practice.
TK: How appropriate is our media content for children? Do you think our media is children-friendly?
GN: In my opinion, children are the most neglected group of the citizenry. Print media is to some extent children-friendly but electronic media is not at all. There is a lack of creative thinking and training both in case of programmes and news for children. Many newspapers have separate children's sections. However, public media should keep in mind that newspaper is open to all. There is no such thing as ratings in newspapers, whereby only people above the age of 18 can access it. Television has the option of producing exclusive programmes with parental guidance ratings. Parents can decide whether the children will watch a certain movie or TV programme. But newspapers cannot do this. So in case of newspapers we need to keep in mind that any content or illustration or news or even language, which in many cases may not be even appropriate for the general public, is not at all appropriate for children. Here again the need for a comprehensive code of conduct with a separate section for children and professional training on this issue arises.
TK: Do social networking sites pose any threat to formal media, especially print media? Considering ethical issues, is closing down social networking sites a solution to this problem?
GN: I believe, one kind of media cannot pose threat to another media. If we look at the world history, when TV came the people thought that no one will listen to radio or read newspapers. But that never happened. Every media, be it radio, TV, newspaper or social sites, has something that fulfills the specific demands of its audience which is also specialised.
One size does not fit all. Each media has its own strengths and limitations that it must be aware of. Social sites will only become popular when they provide news the mainstream media does not. When does an audience member, someone like me, go to social sites? When I do not get certain news in the mainstream. If I got the news in the mainstream I would have gone to the social sites only for socialising. But now I largely depend on the social sites for news since mainstream does not fulfill my need. Unfulfilled needs may relate to information or immediacy. The weakness of newspapers is that they cannot provide news until the following day. Social sites are sometimes even faster than TV news. A number of times social sites have been my first source of news and in many cases the only source. However, as long as the other media can work as per their strength, I do not think that one media can abolish another. Closing down social sites is an absurd idea and a fascist thought. Social media cannot be closed down. We rather need to make social media responsible. In fact, we need to focus on how social media can encourage citizen journalism. Social media, too, should have a code of conduct of its own.
TK: What can be done to ensure greater freedom for, as well as responsibility, of the media?
GN: If the media wants to ensure press freedom and carry out the role that is expected of it then it needs to be responsible for its own actions. A comprehensive code of conduct must be developed and enacted by the media houses. Government changes and directives appear imposing and gagging and thus are protested, so the media should take up the responsibility of developing its own code of conduct. Only the daily Prothom Alo has a small one but others do not even have that.
The media asks for transparency from others but is not transparent itself, which it must be as an institution that works for the public. We want to see their code of conduct posted online, their revenues, expenses, sources of funds made public. Media talks about right to information, but it also needs to fulfill the audience's right to obtain information about media. The media actually needs to set an example by acknowledging that it is liable to the audience.
Professional media institutes should be established to fulfill the needs of the expanding media industry. The media has many weaknesses, and when these are pointed out, journalism departments at universities are often blamed. We have to remember that for such a large industry, the public and private universities together do not have enough departments to produce media professionals. Neither do most journalists around the world come from universities. They come from the media institutes. I can speak at least for the public universities here that they are doing their best. The major chunk of journalists still come from the university departments. However, universities are not professional schools or training centres. There are government training institutes such as the Press Institute of Bangladesh, National Institute of Mass Communication (NIMCO) and National Press Institute for Electronic Media but these have the flaws characteristic of government institutions. Considering the ever-expanding media industry, if the media wants to work seriously and professionally, it should take up the responsibility of training media professionals and efforts to establish training institutes.
There is also a lack of research. It is unthinkable that the media industry can survive without research. There are no research cells in the media houses, they are not trying to find out the needs of their audience.
We need to strengthen the monitoring mechanism. A monitoring body could be formed (with representatives from the media, lawmakers, academics, activists) to not only prepare a code of conduct but to monitor whether media houses are following the standards set by the code. Along with media content, the working environment of the media professionals should also be monitored. An information and legal cell could be formed to take necessary steps to ensure safety of journalists, follow up cases, provide legal aid, compile data, etc., as well as journalists' other rights such as wage board, work place security and freedom from sexual harassment. Now when something happens, some protests take place but the issue is not followed through, statistics are not collected systematically. When Bangladesh has so many media houses and claims to have a long-established, progressive journalism history, why should there be such lack of data and information in the media industry? Every media house should have a cell and it will be linked to a central monitoring body. In order to ensure safety and security of journalists, justice for journalist killings, etc., it is not enough to organise human chains. Media houses must systematically and continuously pursue these issues.
Tamanna Khan is Feature Writer, The Star magazine.