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January 30, 2004

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The accountability of the Fourth Estate
Aly Zaker

It is often said that the media is the fourth estate. This not so palatable definition of the mass media was given by the communist school. The media was seen as a propagator of bourgeois culture. The concept of communism, and with it all that it stood for, has become a matter of the past, at least for the present. However, within the confines of liberal pluralistic democracy, mass media is still perceived as the fourth estate, because it is the guardian of democracy and defender of public interest. Edmund Burke was quoted as saying that, there were three estates in the parliament; but, in the reporters' gallery yonder, there sat a fourth estate more important than they all. Historian Carlyle, who brought this quotation to light, did so to describe this power of the media as the newly found power of the man of letters, and, by extension the newspaper reporter. In his account, it seems that the press are a new fourth estate added to the then conceived powers that be i.e. priesthood, aristocracy and the commoners.

There are a number of thinkers all over the world who can be quoted as giving the media, more importantly the print media a power that is, crucial, unlimited, and enviable. This importance of the fourth estate or whichever name you wish to call it by is vital to the generic rights of human beings living in a democratic or quasi-democratic society. Nothing must go unchallenged. In fact the citizens of a country have every right to know what is going on around them.

In present day Bangladesh, we see a proliferation of media of all kinds. There are at least two radio stations, four TV stations (and some more are coming) and innumerable newspapers. Quite a large number of these are dailies. For our discussion today let us leave out the periodicals and concentrate just on the dailies. The dailies give out today's news tomorrow. They write commentaries, special reports, post editorials, etc. to make the readers aware of an issue or event and to form their own opinion about it. With some semblance of democracy established in this country after '91, the newspapers here have got a tail wind. Whether this means freedom of press is a question that still remains foggy because the government still reserves the right of controlling the insolent press by reducing their revenue allocation through the State sponsored advertisements. Unfortunately for us, the private sector, still being at its infancy, cannot support the print media adequately. Therefore, the twist in the Papers' tail, if I do not like you, is still in order. With the electronic media it is a different ball game all together. That media is hotboth in terms of reach and popularity. So, even the private channels have to watch out, whether it is entertainment or information that they undertake to broadcast. Therefore, the powers that be are safe--absolutely safe in terms of electronic media and a little less in print. Only some exceedingly brave scribes venture to indulge in truthful criticism that run the risk of being sorted out at a suitable time.

Being critical of the establishment is popular. But what if you cannot be as critical as you would like to be for the risk involved in it? Well if you can't you should opt for someone harmless and would not be able to hit back. So we see some of our newsmen in some of our newspapers extremely keen to select a feeble adversary and wage a war against him or her. At this point I would hazard the question, how far should the mandate of the fourth estate extend in countries like ours? I would not have asked this question at all if the zealots in the field of journalism would have behaved responsibly, if they would not have used the feeble few and their yet to be proven "wrong deeds" to further the sale of their newspapers. Most importantly, if they would not add fuel to the fire of imagination to fabricate such flippant soap opera reports to titillate their readers. What is more tragic in a society like ours is that the victims of these misdemeanours are women. Especially women connected with show business. Women of a male dominated society where they have to continuously endeavour to prove they are innocent and deserve a break. This is what the representatives of the fourth estate must realise.

 

 
         

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