LAST week, the government formulated a policy that has major bearing on freedom of expression of the citizens. Article 1.2 of the Broadcasting Policy details the aims and objectives. They include “strengthening and making the broadcasting system dynamic,” “adhering to international principles and standards” through pursuing values of “pluralism and diversity, accuracy, impartiality,” and also ensuring people's unfettered access to information. They also highlight initiatives for improving the quality of broadcasting system through open and fair competition between private and pubic sectors, promoting public-private partnership, engaging the broadcast media in government's development activities and eliminating discrimination. These goals espouse “the fundamental freedom of the news media” that has been an integral element of the “spirit of the great War of Liberation,” and are emphasised in the preamble of the policy.
While presenting the new policy the information minister pointed out that it was not directed “to control” the media, but to ensure that they “enjoy greater independence and accountability.” The minister further stated that the initiative was essentially to “bring about discipline” in the broadcasting sector, a demand that was put forward by the members of the media. In reinforcing his claim of democratic decision-making process the minister highlighted “the participation of the stakeholders” in framing the policy.
There has been a lot of discussion in the print and electronic media about the contents of the new policy. The cabinet approval has drawn sharp response from various quarters. Rights activists view it as gross infringement on the freedom of expression, while a section of the stakeholders who participated in its formulation expressed their disappointment at the final outcome. In this essay an attempt will be made to examine the milieu in which the broadcasting policy has been framed, the likely intent of the government as reflected in the framing process, and the reasons why it should be deemed to be against freedom of expression and thus anti-democratic.
One does not have to be a discerning observer to conclude that freedom of expression has been under pressure all through independent Bangladesh's history. Evocation of the spirit of the War of Liberation has not been enough to cure the disdain against press freedom by both civilian and military factions of the ruling elite of the country. Every ruling party or coalition made brazen use of the state-owned media to promote its vested interests, with utter disregard for freedom of expression.
There is a propensity among some liberal commentators to equate lack of press freedom with authoritarian military rules and as a post-1975 phenomenon. However, one recalls the pressure that daily Ganakantha (People's Voice), an organ of the Jatiya Samajtantrik Dal of the current information minister, had to endure under the first Awami League government and how freedom of expression was curtailed following the passage of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution that launched single party rule. All newspapers, barring 4 that were government-owned, were shut down.
In the post-Baksal phase, under the successive BNP, Jatiya Party and Awami League administrations, both electronic and print media continued to endure various kinds of stress that included arbitrary distribution of quota for newsprints and advertisements; formal and informal censorship; self-censorship; advice and other forms of diktat from the Press Information Department, intelligence agencies and the Offices of the Chief Martial Law Administrator and the Prime Minister, depending on political dispensation of the time.
The situation has been no less difficult since the Awami League-led alliance took over power in 2009. In recent times, issuance of radio and television licenses to individuals and groups on political consideration; injudicious amendment of the Information and Communication Act; arbitrary closure of television channels and incarceration of an editor; ill-advised directives to electronic media on whom to invite to talk shows and whom not to; imprudent pronouncements of a number of ministers that the media was enjoying “unfettered freedom that needed to be curbed;” and the frustration of the prime minister that “even the television channels which received license from this government were taking positions against it,” are all indicative of the frame of mind of those who are at the helm of affairs today.
In recent weeks, discussions about amending the Printing Presses and Publications Act for giving back the power of rescinding registration of newspapers to the deputy commissioners, though denied by the information minister, has further heightened the apprehension.
It is under such a situation that the Broadcasting Policy has been finalised. The policy only reaffirms the government's entrenched position in continuing with the culture of impunity extended to the members of law enforcement agencies and those in the civil administration.
One has reason to doubt if there has been any movement forward in the mindset of the Awami League leaders for creating an enabling environment for freedom of expression to flourish in this country since the Asafuddowla Commission report was jettisoned during the first tenure of the Hasina government. One wonders why the political leaders cannot come out of such a mindset. The objectives enshrined in the approved policy are in perfect harmony with the spirit of the Liberation War that Awami League leaders and their cohorts so loudly champion. So why are they reticent in realising these goals and why are the measures recommended in the policy so antithetical to freedom of expression?
In framing this national policy the information ministry opted to pursue a partisan approach and had chosen those who belong to the Awami persuasion from among the journalist community as members of the Committee. The extent of anguish even among those members of the Committee is palpable. Some among them raised the demand that the government should immediately set up an independent Broadcasting Commission with the mandate to review the policy and frame the broadcasting law and associated rules. However, the information minister has been on record stating that the law will be framed within a couple of months and it is only after framing of the law that the Broadcasting Commission would be set up. He indicated that it might take as long as five months to establish the Commission after the law is framed.
The time line proposed by the minister raises the question as to how such an important law can be framed within a couple of months. If formulating the law can take two months, then why would it take as many as five months to set up the Broadcasting Commission? One cannot help but reach the conclusion that that this delay in forming the Commission will only give the ministry unbound authority to continue to be sole arbiter on broadcasting matters.
In a major departure from the established practice of holding consultations before framing a public policy, as was followed in cases of anti-trafficking act and overseas employment and migration act by this government, the Broadcasting Policy was formulated without major public engagement. The reactions of the members of the committee to the final document betray the fact that very little, if any, of their contributions were included in the final document. The ministry should consider making up for its past lack of transparency by putting up on its website the contributions and suggestions that it received on the draft policy from the Committee members and those outside. This is likely to help fill the gaps in forthcoming law.
A major party, the BNP, has condemned the policy document. If the past record is anything to go by then not much trust can be laid on the party that it will rescind the document if it goes to power. Successive governments in Bangladesh have continued with the regressive policies of their predecessors, particularly those curtailing the democratic rights of citizens. Those include the Emergency Act, the Special Powers Act, the Printing Press and Publication Act and the laws that created various Special Forces.
One expected that this assault on freedom of expression would bring journalists of all hues together. It is disheartening to note that the media fraternity has failed to take a united stand on this. Perhaps time has come for other civil society organisations and the people at large to challenge this freedom curbing policy of the government. It is only by doing so that one can truly uphold one of the most cherished principles of the spirit of our great Liberation War, freedom of expression.
The writer teaches International Relations at the University of Dhaka. He is president of Odhikar.