Is Mohsin Ali the face of present government?

Afsan Chowdhury

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Social welfare minister Mohsin Ali has without much difficulty become one of the most well known ministers of the present government particularly in the sector that matters the most i.e. the media. Media can make people famous or infamous. Mohsin Ali has achieved both. Not only has he become well known to everyone but in the process he has managed to make the government look anti-media. So why did Mohsin Ali shoot his mouth off this way which didn’t exactly make his or his party’s image look any better? Is it because the system that determines relationship between the official and the media world is threatened?

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His words come in the wake of the Broadcast Policy declaration which has caused considerable concern in many quarters. The Policy is essentially a bureaucratic product and was passed by the cabinet without any public airing. It has been argued that this was placed on the official website but that, particularly in a country like ours where there is a weak net culture, is not much. It’s also not a substitute for public hearings. As a result, it has   become controversial even before application. The government has promised to set up a Broadcasting Commission but no dates are in the air till now. Meanwhile, the ministry of information remains the major domo cracking the official whip over Bangladesh media.

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It’s interesting to speculate as to why the government has resorted to such public anger against national media. The recent big shock for the government was the role of media in the Narayanganj killings in covering the gory event. The media did bring about a high level of public pressure on the authorities and they may have been forced to act and arrest and investigate exposing the inner fissures. It was from this time that the government seems to have noted that while media focus on the BNP-Jamaat mayhem on the streets of Dhaka worked to its advantage, it could go against them when the focus was on the incumbent regime. It was not about taking political sides but focusing attention on any of the problems.

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Talk shows have also angered the authorities. The PM has called them “Taak” or “Sour” shows but it’s interesting that the PM has listened to the sour stuff only but completely forgotten the “sweet” stuff which her supportive participants say on the same talk shows. If she hears only the sour stuff and not the sweet talk of her defenders, the results will obviously be confusing for her. As a result, she blames media for the criticism rather than appreciating the democratic system where criticism is the most important part of any governance arrangement. And in that arrangement media plays a critical role. You can’t have democracy and only want to be praised. Our political crisis begins from that perception.

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Post-Liberation Bangladesh has evolved as a society of alternatives because mainstream institutions have not performed well. The rise of the Talk Shows can be directly linked to the decline of participatory parliaments once “boycott” culture took hold. Since there was no common space where the government and the opposition could meet, the Talk Shows emerged as that alternative space. In fact it was the only place where both could sit and argue, debate and discuss. It has kept the spirit of pluralism going. To look at it negatively is sending the wrong message about political tolerance.

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That should not mean that the media has handled its tasks in a fully professional manner. In many cases particularly in reporting, many instances can be quoted where the coverage was disturbingly bad and distorted, totally focused on sensationalism and showed no concern about the audience or the reported. The rating war is an essential part of the media system, but it works only when it’s regulated by guidelines, common sense and ethical journalism. By those tests, the media wouldn’t pass on many instances. That concern has been missing within the media itself.

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Media is not any different from other professions in town but its specialty is that it is a watcher of governance and hence no matter what it looks like, its role is highly significant. But the media has no professional standard laid down, no agreement about what its roles should be, what it can do and can’t do. Its corporate behaviour resembles a trade union than a professional body and they are not held together by common values. That is perhaps why despite media being the most advanced sector, there is a large trust gap.

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Meanwhile, the information minister Hasanul Haq Inu has said that the broadcast policy is a guideline document and not a document of control.  This is because it has no punitive measures. But once this becomes an Act /Law the issue of contravening is inevitable. He has also said that no media person had raised objection over it till date but are doing so now. We would say that a national broadcasting policy is far too serious a matter to be dealt this way, either by media or by the minister. Just because no media person had written about it means little and saying that nobody raised the issue before it becomes official means even less. What it means is that the policy needs to be consensual not thrust upon as it looks now.

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Every government needs an opposition to function in a democracy but we are stuck with single party rule of sort since the Jatiya Party simply doesn’t matter. As a result, the media has emerged as the opposition by default since no one really is listening to the BNP who matter little at the moment. The democratic arrangement has been deeply disturbed and all the parties concerned are involved in creating this crisis. But it’s the ruling party which has the maximum responsibility in ensuring this political arrangement works positively. It means, strange as it may seem, the party in power’s task is to make sure that the media is free. That would actually make the government both free and safe.

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Mohsin Ali’s crude bluster has damaged the image of the powers that be even though he has now apologised for it. For a government that is so sensitive about protecting the image of the police, the RAB and the military, it’s a bit of a surprise that he was allowed to do so to the party in power. There is nothing to be gained from attacking the media. In the past, every attempt to curb media freedom has resulted in a failure. For a government that has actually dared to live with a free media, more free than at time before, who could possibly be advising them to give media less space and create more hostility?

Source: Bd news24

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