Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Media and democracy in Bangladesh

From New Age:

The prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, gave a call to editors and media persons to help in the uninterrupted functioning of hard-earned democracy. She made the call at a meeting not with editors but with newspaper owners in the persons of delegates of the Newspaper Owners Association of Bangladesh when they called on her at her official residence Jamuna on Sunday, according to a report filed by the private news agency United News of Bangladesh.

Never mind the meeting was not with editors the relevance of her message will not be lost. The prime minister also requested the media owners to project the various successes and achievements of the government to the people and not to publish ‘untrue’ news. As for publication of untrue news, the media is a vast collective in which there are good guys as well as bad guys. We cannot say that such news items or commentaries are never published which later scrutiny finds to be untrue or grossly exaggerated.

But then no newspaper can consistently publish unfounded stories and survive in business. Readers will not go on paying for false information or analyses. Apart from the law of the land, there are also some institutional checks against irresponsible expression of views. While irresponsible journalism must be shunned by all, experience shows that any reporting that does not accord with the ruling party’s stated position is dubbed false or motivated. As regards the positive projection of the government’s successes and achievements, the government’s elaborate PR mechanism gives the official point of view; the media gives the people’s point of view.

The government handout may boldly publicise that such numbers of cyclone-hit people have been provided relief; the media will highlight that the remaining numbers of cyclone-hit people have not been provided relief. That way the outlooks of the two agencies may never converge. A government which claims to be democratic should show both tolerance and sensitivity. The way things are being run forces us to conclude that elected government does not amount to democratic government.

There is no denying the prime minister’s observation that smooth functioning of democracy is the sine qua non for protecting people’s rights and interests. Traditionally it has been thought that democracy and free press flourish side by side and have an interdependent, almost symbiotic relationship. From this point of view editors and journalists can certainly play an important role in the fostering of democracy. But the foremost task in this regard lies with political leaders, especially those in power. Editors and journalists do not operate the levers of power. They can only examine the reality of the country and give an opinion as to how power should be exercised to reach maximum benefit to the people. They can do their job successfully subject to fulfilment of two conditions.

Firstly they should be free to express their views (within the law, of course) and their views should be given the importance they deserve. Although the Right to Information Act has been legislated (possibly under external pressure) endless rules and restrictions stand in the way of free expression of views. Apart from crippling laws and restrictions, there are harassment and intimidation. In the one year since the present government took over, 229 cases of attack on journalists have been recorded leading to three deaths and 71 serious injuries.

If the elected government has acquired any democratic character it should be reflected in its attitude to the media and the opposition.