Be afraid, be very afraid

Syed Ishtiaque Reza

I am really afraid the policy will gag our freedom, and thus the right of the people to know


The first national broadcasting policy, the draft of which the cabinet approved recently, is a widely discussed issue among media professionals.

Many national and international media houses have called me for my opinion on this very important issue. The reaction was too immediate at that moment. I feel that it is time to explain the law in detail.

As a media professional, I welcome the government move for a policy which should help define how well this burgeoning media market would serve the public interest. But I am scared too, as there are some provisions in the policy that badly affect media freedom and democracy in the country, and I am scared that bureaucrats and politicians are to implement a policy for a sector which is in a relentless struggle to ensure people’s right to know.

Usually, our politicians say that freedom of expression and the right of the public to information are fundamental to the establishment and nurturing of a democratic society. This is fine as long as they are in the opposition, forgetting it as soon as they come to power.

We, the media practitioners, know very well that people have the right to know the truth, and it is the duty of the media to provide the truth to the public without fear of harassment or coercion. On the other hand, it is the state’s responsibility to protect and safeguard the rights and freedoms of the citizens, including those associated with the media.

If this is the context, the approved policy needs to be reviewed by the media professionals from their own context. The government claims that the policy is meant to ensure the free flow of information and make the media socially responsible. We need to ask a very simple question here: Are politicians themselves socially responsible?

There is scope for misinterpretation of many of the clauses by the bureaucrats and by those in power. The policy says that no one can utter any “inconsistent and misleading information” at talk shows. This is a direct threat to freedom of expression as authorities can term any information as “inconsistent” and “misleading.”

We can expect all efforts to be made by broadcasters and talk show moderators to correct errors in facts at the earliest opportunity. We can also expect editorial cautiousness, but we should not have anything imposed by the government.

The policy says there cannot be any news or program that ridicules the armed forces and other law-enforcement agencies. This clause is highly unacceptable. This is an attempt to give a license to the police, RAB, and other law enforcers to do anything. The other day, a picture of a police officer physically harassing a girl in the middle of a crowd was published in some online news sites. According to the policy, the police department can say that such a news item was aimed at ridiculing the force if it is aired.

Think about the Narayanganj seven-murder incident. Can you think of any stories against the RAB members who were involved with the murder had there been a policy like this? If the media does not have the right to inform the people of the allegations made by the victims’ relatives about the involvement of three RAB men (actually army officers) in the murder case, it will be the death of the media.

The policy tried to shield public servants as there is the provision that there cannot be news and programs against them if they are in the positions of giving any sort of judgment. I am not sure what the government actually wants. Why would the corrupt government officers not come under public scrutiny if it is really in power to ensure governance?

Broadcasters should ensure that the content of news and current affairs programs are always presented in as balanced a manner as possible. But we are not ready to hear judgment from a bureaucrat about our content.

The policy imposes restrictions on airing news or programs that invade personal privacy, impede state security, or hurt religious and non-communal values. These all are vague and are going to open a floodgate of opportunities for corrupt politicians and government employees to kill media.

I would like to humbly ask the information minister to name a single media house in Bangladesh that has so far undermined the spirit of the liberation war or defamed the armed forces. If the answer is no, then why is such a clause included in the policy? Should we take lessons from politicians or bureaucrats on issues such as security, sovereignty, and national ideology?

I am really afraid the policy will gag our freedom, and thus the right of the people to know. The government says that the Information Ministry will enforce the policy until the Broadcast Commission is set up. Some media people are supporting this. I am afraid of the commission too. The experience here regarding all commissions is not pleasant. Partisan people are posted in the commissions who are more pro-government than the government itself.

There was no reason to hurry the approval of this policy in the cabinet. This is nothing but a move to strictly regulate the media. This will ultimately turn out to be a sword hanging over the shoulders of media professionals.

We believe that there is the need for a broadcast policy, but the procedure of rushing it through bureaucracy is really flawed. Let the broadcasters themselves formulate their own policy instead of giving the blade to the bureaucrats or the goons.

Source: Dhaka Tribune