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     Volume 7 Issue 19 | May 9, 2008 |

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Of Promises and Press Freedom

Kajalie Shehreen Islam

The violence surrounding the Women Development Policy 2008 last month, in which hundreds -- including a number of police officers and journalists -- were assaulted, held different levels of significance for different people. For some, it was the lead news on a few of the private television channels and was of obvious importance. Others, who saw that it was the fifth or sixth news item on other channels, did not think it was too big a deal. And for the majority of the population of Bangladesh who watch Bangladesh Television (BTV), the violence did not even occur.

This is just one example. These things happen every day, on every channel and front page. Every media organisation, be it newspaper or television channel, has its own editorial policy. Accordingly, it will give some news items more space or time, i.e., prominence, over others. But when there are discrepancies over major events happening in the country, the objectivity of the media comes into question. Can an event of major importance really be that varied in significance to different television stations and newspapers? Research has shown that the media set the public agenda. Thus the audience are influenced by the agenda set by the media and, if news treatment varies significantly, confused by it.

Every World Press Freedom Day (May 3), seminars and conferences are held everywhere on the state of the world's media and how free they are, how many journalists have been killed, imprisoned or arrested in different countries. But even beyond this there are things that matter -- how free the media allow themselves to be, free of pressures from their owners, which includes everyone from corporate organisations to politicians and, perhaps most importantly, the State. In the end, the press is about the people it serves, and its freedom is about being free enough to give its audience the facts and the truth behind the facts. Its freedom lies in the freedom of the audience to form their views and opinions from information gained through their right and access to news and information.

In our country, not only do we have different private television channels subtly serving the interests of their owning politicians or business corporations, but even State television and radio cannot be relied upon. This would not be surprising in an autocracy, but it is shocking in a democracy. In fact, they are the ones with the least credibility. Considering the fact that they have the widest reach, it is also cause for the greatest concern.

According to the National Media Survey (NMS) 2005, television reach in urban areas was 87.9 percent compared to 55.5 percent in rural areas. Because private channels do not have terrestrial facilities, this basically means that in rural areas all people get to watch is BTV. According to the same survey, 22.5 percent of people listened to the radio, mainly in rural areas, with listener-ship actually declining significantly in urban areas. (In the last year, however, with private radio stations gaining popularity, listener-ship in urban areas has increased.) Radio in rural areas also, obviously, means Bangladesh Betar (BB). In a country where the reach of private media is so limited, the major responsibility of informing the people lies with the State media.

A Democracywatch report released in October 2002 found the news coverage of BTV the month before to consist of 33.56 percent of national news -- 31.96 percent was news related to the prime minister and her Cabinet, while 8.94 percent was on the prime minister herself. The ratio of news coverage of government and opposition was 99:1.

During every past political government, State-owned media have served the ruling party, acting as its mouthpiece. This was after the fall of Ershad's autocratic regime when the so-called democratic political parties promised freedom of media. The Awami League (AL) in its election manifestoes promised autonomy of BTV and BB but upon coming to power in 1996 did not follow through on its promise. The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) did not pledge autonomy but did promise a policy of free flow of information while also criticising the AL for using State-owned media for party interests during its tenure.

The media have been criticised for being elitist, representing an elite ruling class and its interests, misrepresenting, undermining or simply ignoring the genuine interests of the masses. When the media in a country are capital-centric, the greater part if not all of their focus is on urban life and its representation. In Bangladesh, this excludes some 80 percent of the population which happens to be rural. The national media, which is supposed to uphold the interests of the larger population, generates little interest with its ancient set-up, boring presentation and limited credibility. Local media, that is electronic media, which are more accessible to a largely illiterate population most of who do not read newspapers, do not exist. It is unfortunate that in all these years, despite television stations mushrooming in the capital and now even radio beginning to spread, there are no local stations in other districts. This would not only make the media more relevant for the people of each district but also involve them in the process, thereby creating local employment opportunities as well.

With radio sets being more affordable and feasible as they do not require electric power, radio as a medium has contributed to our national development through its awareness-raising programmes, but it still remains under-utilised. Community radio, working at the grassroots and enhancing the democratic process, has proven itself as an effective tool for development in many countries in Asia and Africa. It could do the same for our own country.

It is not enough, however, to simply have the infrastructure. Strategic planning and design are of equal importance. The advent and increasing feasibility of television are not the only reasons why radio listener-ship has declined. Any medium has to be relevant to the people and suited to their lives. With most people in rural areas tired after a hard day's work and in bed by 8 in the evening, who listens to “Esho Gori Shukher Ghar” at 10 at night on BB is worth pondering. Programmes on population, health, nutrition and farming which are targeted more towards those living in rural areas must be designed accordingly, with their interests and lifestyles in mind. Radio, as with every other medium, must be entertaining as well as informative for people to actually want to tune in.

Credibility, of course, remains of utmost importance. While private media may take this into consideration for business competition purposes if nothing else, there are no such bindings on State-owned media which have been continuing their display of biased arrogance for years. Judging from the actions of past political governments, media autonomy is not something that will come easy. With the caretaker government currently in power, this may be the opportune time to bring changes in the media. Though getting into the nitty-gritty of private media may be too detailed and daunting a task, giving autonomy to State-owned media would have much wider repercussions, benefiting the larger population. With their reach, BTV and BB can bring massive awareness and change among the people. Bringing change within, by revolutionising the process in which the two themselves work, however, would have to be the necessary first step.

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