Regulating the Broadcast Media
Photo: Shawkat Jamil
Shamim Ahsan Khan
It was heartening to learn that the government is going to frame a broadcasting policy. Minister for Information Abul Kalam Azad has made the revelation at a recent meeting organised by Dhaka Union of Journalists at CIRDAP Auditorium.
Framing laws for the media might be a contentious proposition. Particularly, the broadcasters may well suspect it as an effort to stifle the media. While there might be some justification in such fears, history has told us that laws don't necessarily have to be repressive. And as far as broadcasting law is concerned, the absence of the law might make the media more vulnerable to state abuse.
The history of private television channels is one characterised by blatant political interference, sometimes in the form of wholesale issuing of licenses or shutting down channels under controversial circumstances. While a law or policy is no guarantee against political interference, the absence of a law makes it all the more easier for governments to meddle, as past records have shown.
Since liberalisation of broadcasting in the mid-nineties, the sector has witnessed a dramatic growth. From just one television and one radio the broadcasting sector now boasts 12 television channels and four radio stations and 10 more TV channels are expected to hit the market soon. It was neither the market demand nor public need but a kind of unwholesome competition between two rival political camps that has driven the growth in the television sector. Since BNP gave away nine licenses, AL had to issue 12 licenses to stay ahead in the race.
The wholesale licensing of TV channels by successive governments has resulted in a bloated industry that is struggling to keep its head above water. As the industry kept growing, advertising revenue kept shrinking. Insiders admit that there are too many channels competing for too little advertising. Many of the channels are running at a loss. The situation would only worsen when 10 more TV channels join in. In fact, the licensees of those TV channels are struggling to find financiers who are prepared to enter a market that already has too many players.
Moreover, in the rush to give licenses on political consideration many of the channels have fallen into wrong hands. Many of the owners are broadcasters by accident. They run the media outlets as if they were garment factories. There is no environment for creativity and ingenuity to flourish. The result is substandard programming with little originality or diversity.
While we have 12 TV channels, we hardly have as many options. It is the same mix of news, talk shows, drama serials and music shows that rule the programme schedule of every TV channel. Be it content or presentation, programme producers seem incapable of going beyond this programming format. Programming is so formulaic that the only way one can differentiate one channel from another is from the logo.
It is the same with news. If you have watched news on one channel it is as good as watching news on all the other channels. Because it is more or less the same 10 items you would come across on every channel's news, sometimes in the same order. This is because TV journalism is largely event or assignment-driven. There is hardly any investigative reporting.
The situation won't improve overnight. Having a broadcasting law could be a good beginning to address many of the lackings facing the broadcasting sector. A broadcasting law that meets international standards will make provision for an independent regulatory body to administer the broadcasting sector. Consequently, the government's influence on the channels would be largely diminished. It is crucial, particularly for the sake of the media's independence. Since the media outlets owe their coming into being to one party or another they are unable to assert and uphold their independence.
Moreover, a competitive licensing regime under the watch of an independent regulator would create opportunities for talented people to become broadcasters. It will naturally contribute to enhancing programming quality. Above all, a law would establish a sense of order and facilitate healthy growth of the broadcasting sector.
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