Back Issues
The Team
Contact us
Volume 5 Issue 05 | May 2011



Original Forum

Readers' Forum

Press Freedom: Still a Far Cry
--AJM Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan
Repressing the Press in Pakistan --Iqbal Khattak
Of Elusive Freedoms
--Somnath Batabyal
Bangladesh Cinema:
Decaying…or Rebirthing?

--Zakir Hossain Raju
The Power of Television
--Jyoti Rahman
Female Directors, Female Gaze:
The Search for Female Subjectivity in Film

--Rubaiyat Hossain
A Photo Feature:
Unsung Heroes of the Night
Cinema as the Work of Art in the
Age of Digital Reproduction

--Fahmidul Haq

Contemplating Media Freedom
--G.M. Shahidul Alam

Of Democracy and Media Freedom
--Mubashar Hasan

'Equal Property Right':
Much Ado about Nothing

--Kaberi Gayen

Our Migrant Workers:
Hands that Feed the Country

--Ziauddin Choudhury
Righting Past Wrongs
--Kartick Chandra Mandal


Forum Home

Of Democracy and Media Freedom

MUBASHAR HASAN analyses the obstacles to media freedom in Bangladesh.


For a democratic government it is essential to maintain a media, which is free from censorship since media freedom signifies the right of free speech and is crucial for promoting respect for differences of opinions, a key aspect of a democratic society. However, in Bangladesh, despite the media playing a positive role in upholding the democratic values in many aspects, freedom of media is still heavily constrained.

For example, even after the landslide win of Bangladesh Awami League which has formed the present government with overwhelming support given by the people of Bangladesh after the last election, we have seen unfortunate clamp down on web-based media promoting citizen journalism and voices of ordinary people. Therefore temporary closure of YouTube and Facebook in addition to closing down of private satellite channel Channel 1 and temporary shut down of Daily Amar Desh reinforces the fact that media in Bangladesh is still far from being free which brings us near to the point that democracy in Bangladesh still has many challenges to overcome where the challenge of media freedom is not a stand alone factor. It should be kept in mind that crackdown on media has been a normative practice by governments since its inception as a country. The degree and dimension of crackdown, however, varies from regime to regime.

In order to understand underlying factors hindering the growth of media freedom in Bangladesh this article examines the concept of freedom of media and its significance in a democratic society before examining Bangladesh's stance globally in relation to free media.

Freedom of media in a democratic society
In theory, democracy is a concept 'of the people, by the people, for the people', as it depends on an active role of the people. Winston Churchill famously referred to democracy in 1947 as 'the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time', and well before him Abraham Lincoln considered democracy as the 'last, best hope on earth' (quoted in Flanagan et al., 2005). Within this paradigm of democracy, freedom is considered as a very important factor. Even though 'freedom' is an abstract concept, which is fluid by nature in every society, whether democratic or non-democratic, various limits to freedom are imposed. Various freedoms indicate less governmental interference, since democracy as a concept promotes accountability and transparency. Here, the matter of freedom of media comes into play. Realising the significance of free media's role in promoting accountability and transparency, the previous US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once said, 'there is no more important pillar than a free and active press, what American "founding father" Thomas Jefferson called "the fourth estate"'.

According to a USAID report there are two major reasons behind the significance of free media in a democratic society:

a) A free media ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation.

b) Second, information serves a "checking function" by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them.

Indeed, in theory, freedom of media is instrumental in ensuring democratic practices. However, globally, freedom of media to operate by its own will was obstructed time to time or media was influenced heavily through its productions i.e. news, programmes, debates, etc. Thus role of media was questioned. Especially during the Iraq war, the role of CNN and BBC was heavily questioned which signified the tension between the occident and orient and fostered the rise of Al-Jazeera.

Even though the celebrated American thinker Noam Chomsky termed the concept of media freedom as a façade, I would be rather enthusiastic to opine that there are limits to freedom for media and within this limit, globally as well as in Bangladesh media is playing a significant role to uphold the values of democracy.

Bangladesh and the press freedom index 2010
Press freedom index (PFI) is a unique index compiled by international pressure group Reporters without borders for press freedom. Every year since 2002 this pressure group has been launching its PFI to project country position in relation to press freedom. To compile this index, Reporters Without Borders, according to its website, prepares a questionnaire with a number of criteria that assess the state of press freedom in each country. It includes every kind of violation directly affecting journalists (such as murders, imprisonment, physical attacks and threats) and news media (censorship, confiscation of newspaper issues, searches and harassment). It includes the degree of impunity enjoyed by those responsible for these press freedom violations. It also measures the level of self-censorship in each country and the ability of the media to investigate and criticise. Financial pressure, which is increasingly common, is also assessed and incorporated into the final score. However, a point to note is that this PFI does not look at human rights violations.

Bangladesh's position in the PFI has been featured since the inception of the concept of PFI in 2002 and it projects an interesting scenario of the country's stance in relation to media freedom globally. For example, in 2002 Bangladesh's position was 118 among 139 countries featured in the PFI whereas in 2003 it came out 143rd out of 166 countries. Bangladesh's was downgraded to 151 out of 167 countries in 2004 and 2005 whereas in 2006 the situation improved slightly as it came out 137th out of 168 countries. In 2007 it was 134, in 2008 it was 136, in 2009 it was 121 and in 2010, Bangladesh's global position in terms of media freedom stood at 126 out of 178 countries featured in the PFI which shows that the situation is improving somewhat. However, based on the PFI it can be argued that internationally, situation in relation to media freedom in Bangladesh is not at all encouraging, which indicates that democracy in Bangladesh is still facing many challenges. The next section looks at the key reasons behind the constraints of media freedom in Bangladesh.

Legal bindings
Following an investigation of various laws of the country, it has been found that there is a restriction on the free expression of journalists. Abul Mansur Ahmed in his research titled, Freedom of the Press and its Constraints: A Study of Press Regulations in Bangladesh', published from the University of York, Canada finds that:

Some of the provisions of various Acts related to media freedom violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and arguably also violates the Constitution of Bangladesh. It goes far beyond what is expected of a democracy in protecting its vital interests. Some provisions of these Acts are incompatible with democratic values and those provisions in various degrees impinge upon press freedom.

International Press Institute (IPI), a global organisation of editors, media executives and leading journalists which is dedicated to the 'furtherance and safeguarding of press freedom, the protection of freedom of opinion and expression, the promotion of the free flow of news and information, and the improvement of the practices of journalism' finds the following laws in Bangladesh as obstacles to media freedom:

a) Criminal defamation.
b) The Special Powers Act of 1974.

IPI's observance of legal bindings related to media freedom in Bangladesh was based on an investigation made by an IPI high mission from November 27 to December 2, 2008 which was in Bangladesh to assess the country's media environment. Mahfuz Anam, the editor of The Daily Star said to that mission that "Criminal defamation is a black law that must be done away with." Indeed, judicial harassment of journalists by way of defamation charges, under sections 500, 501 and 502 of Bangladesh's Penal Code of 1860 and under the Code of Criminal Procedure of 1898, has been common. Similarly, the Special Powers Act of 1974 allows detention of up to 120 days without charge and in the past this law was used to arrest journalists.

Harassment of journalists
It is a common issue in Bangladesh that hinders growth of media freedom. According to the IPI report:

Sixteen journalists have been killed in Bangladesh since 1998, making the country one of the most dangerous for journalists . . . Some were killed for investigating or exposing illegal activities, while others died at the hands of the security apparatus, in particular the infamous Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).

According to another report, a total of 33 journalists were assaulted in a total of 18 incidents across the country from January to March 2008 which signifies the problems for journalists working in the country.

Furthermore, the IPI stresses that impunity with respect to murder of journalists is one of the greatest problems in Bangladesh. According to the report, 'journalists remain under the impression that the government has not taken these murders seriously and has not done enough to discourage or stop attacks against journalists'.

"Politicians don't want to solve the problem. They want to escape the problem," a journalist who has faced persecution by the RAB, most likely in connection with his investigative reports, told IPI. He added that the RAB uses the expression "caught in the crossfire" to refer to the deaths of some journalists at the hands of RAB representatives.

Partisan journalists
Another problem for news media industry in Bangladesh is journalists' political affiliation. The IPI mission found that there is a deep political polarisation that prevails among journalists working in various private news media. The report says, 'Journalists and editors who met with the IPI Mission complained that the media tend to favor either one of the two main political parties -- the Awami League and the BNP -- with great disregard of their professional duty of fairness' overlooking the fact that 'good journalism is good business'.

Tension between media and government
There has always been tension between the media and government of Bangladesh. Whenever a news report criticises government we see government bashing the media, advising it to be more 'objective' and report on 'factual basis'. On the other hand, according to IPI, 'Journalists, in the meantime, felt that politicians fail to understand that holding government to account is one of the fundamental roles of journalism. This means that many politicians fail to appreciate the importance of investigative and independent journalism.' The IPI report stresses that:
'the government is perceived as abusing its power to allocate advertisements by refusing to advertise in newspapers perceived as critical of its policies. This deprives newspapers of an important source of revenue, exercising undue pressure on editorial independence.'

Corporate ownership and interest
At present one of the emerging tends in media ownership is that big conglomerates own newspaper and private satellite channels. Theoretically and in practice therefore news media are influenced. As a result in the recent past we saw 'media war' among major national dailies and television channels. Furthermore, since unfortunately advertisements are still a major source of revenue generation, as per a telephone survey conducted by this writer among various business reporters, it has emerged that some news against big multinational companies which provide handsome amount of advertisements to print and electronic media died before publication.

Lack of professionalism and incentives
Apart from a few national privately run satellite televisions and newspapers, 'good-wages' for journalists is still a big problem for the news-media industry. Therefore many journalists are reportedly involved in unethical activities.

Apart from the aforementioned constraints, other severe problems such as manipulation in providing news, hurdles in gathering news in rural areas and confiscating licenses of private satellite television channels and radio, limited activity of the Press Council (which is a state assigned institution to look after media accountability in the country, at least in theory), also characterize the news media in Bangladesh.

Recommendations for media freedom
In order to provide a free-media environment in the country, I would recommend the following:

Firstly, the authorities are required to react positively to the journalists' criticism, bearing in mind that they are not rivals but co-workers in ensuring a democratic government in the country where criticism is good for a healthy democracy. The legal authorities should ensure that all Bangladeshi laws meet international standards on press freedom and are in line with the spirit and intent of Article 39 of the Bangladeshi Constitution.

Secondly, laws and practices of law-enforcers which go against the well-being of journalists must stop. Harassment of journalists will not bring any good results.

Thirdly, owners of media must emphasise on building an institution rather than using it as a tool for serving their business interests. At the same time, corporate influence on the media must be reduced as it is against the spirit of free media in the country.

Fourthly, an independent watchdog should be formed overlooking media freedom.

Finally, journalists should be offered common ground to develop independent and voluntary codes of conduct affirming fair, balanced and accurate journalism. Here financial reward in a competitive market for journalists and elimination of partisan journalism are critical factors.

Despite so many constraints, Bangladeshi news media played a brave and praiseworthy role in upholding democratic values in the country whether it was during the time of illegal army regimes or autocratic democratic regime. Therefore, a patriotic government and media owners must realise the potential of media freedom for a democratic society and take necessary measures to lessen legal, political and business controls over media.

Secretary Rice Cites Importance of Free Press to Democracy
Discusses world events at Edward R. Murrow journalism forum Available at (http://www. america.gov/st/democracyhr-english/2007/April /200704101654431-xeneerg0.7227747.html)
On freedom of press and culture: an interview with Noam Chomsky. Available at (http://www. inclusivedemocracy.org/dn/vol5/chomsky_press.htm)
USAID report on the role of media in democracy: a strategic approach. Available at (ww.usaid.gov/our_ work/democracy_and.../ pdfs/pnace630.pdf)
International Press Institute (IPI) report on Media Environment in Bangladesh. Available at (www.freemedia.at/.../media/.../Bangladesh_ Media_Environment_final.pdf)
Flanagan, Constance et al. (2005) 'What Does Democracy Mean? Correlates of Adolescents' Views', Journal of Adolescent Research, 20(2): 193-218.State of Press Freedom in Bangladesh. Weekly Biltz. Available at http://www. weeklyblitz.net/185/state-of-press-freedom-in-bangladesh.
Haass, Richard N. (2002). Towards Greater Democracy in the Muslim World. Lecture at the Council on Foreign Relations Washington, DC, 4 December 2002.
A Mansur Ahmed. Freedom of the Press and its constraints: a study of press regulation in Bangladesh. Communication and Culture. York University Canada. Available at cjms.fims.uwo.ca/issues /01-01/ahmed.pdf

Mubashar Hasan is a former journalist.

© thedailystar.net, 2011. All Rights Reserved