• Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Special Feature

Muzzle Me Not

Ananta Yusuf
The new policy may curb their freedom even more.  Photo: Prabir Das
The new policy may curb their freedom even more. Photo: Prabir Das

Last month the government approved the draft of controversial National Broadcast Policy 2014. The Star tries to find its impact on the media and some of its provisions that are contradictory with other existing laws.

Only the draft of the National Broadcast Policy has been formulated till now. But it has managed to put the country's electronic media into jeopardy, pushing the Tk 1,000 crore industry into a state of panic. If the policy is passed, not just the television and radio industry but also cable and satellite televisions, and possibly satellite radios, will also be monitored by a commission formed by the information ministry. In that way, the newly drafted policy will be giving draconian powers to the Ministry of Information instead of providing the required autonomy— financial, functional and administrative - to the Broadcast Commission.
The provisions of the drafted policy, moreover, are not well defined, as it carries a vague meaning of words such as “inconsistent” and “misleading” information, or “politically motivated programme.” Rubaiyat Ferdous, Associate Professor of Mass Communication and Journalism department of Dhaka University points out that the provisions make the policy open to subjective interpretations. He says, “In the absence of proper definition and power to the Broadcast Commission, the policy can be used to serve different government interest and purposes.”  

In 2010, the Awami League-led government prepared the draft of Private Broadcasting Policy in 2010. However, the draft policy was never circulated or distributed by the government. In response to the draft policy, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Information sent back the draft policy to the concerned ministry for revision and further improvement. And on that consequence of revisions the final draft came out in 2013. The newly drafted policy aimed at removing the conflicting scenario among different direct or indirect laws and policies to govern media.
Professor AJM Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan, chairman of Television of Film Studies Department of Dhaka University and a member of the draft policy formulation committee, says, “The most important part of the policy, I believe is that one can lodge complaints with the commission if privacy is infringed. However, private information of a person will not be considered as private if it has public interest.”
Terming the formation of the “independent” commission the most important part of the policy, Shafiul says that all broadcasters will have to prepare their own charter of duties and editorial policies.
However, the provisions for establishment of a legislative broadcasting commission, which will be responsible for preparing a set of comprehensive guidelines for the electronic media, hardly have the required autonomy, since it remains as a part of the Information Ministry (Provision 6.1.5). For that reason the commission will be solely dependent on the ministry for everything ranging from financial to functional and administrative advice. According to the drafted law, the President will appoint the chairman and members of the commission following recommendations of a search committee. But the draft, unfortunately, does not mention or define the method of selecting members of the search committee (Provision 6.1.5).
The draft also suggests taking control of talk-shows that spread “inconsistent” and “misleading” information (Provision 3.2.2). It says that a broadcaster is bound to stop airing programmes against a friendly foreign country that might harm its relationship with Bangladesh (Provision 4.1.3), as should any non-government publications, no programme should violate “The Censorship of Films Act 1963” or any regulations under the act (Provision 3.7.2).
The root of censorship act laid on the ground of a colonial guideline called “The Cinematograph Act 1918”. It was later amended during the Pakistani regime as the Censorship Act, which was finally amended after Bangladesh gained its independence in 1971. Interestingly enough, while the main criticism of Bangla cinema is in the areas of obscenity and violence in mainstream films, the film's most often held at the censor board are alternative films, from Zahir Raihan's 'Jibon Theke Neya' (1970) to Tareque Masud's 'Matir Moina' (1992). While film activists are raising their voice to amend the age old censorship act, at this moment the new broadcast policy provide directions to follow the age old and complicated censorship act.   
Moreover, the drafted policy proposes restrictions on airing “politically motivated programmes” that might cause “anarchy” or “rebellion” (Provision 5.1.12). Strangely enough, the provisions don't provide proper definitions, however, it ensures to form an organisational structure and new laws and regulations for implementing this policy (Provision 1.4.2).
In response to the loopholes of the drafted law, Rubaiyat Ferdous explains that a law has to have a minimum definition or description of words to avoid confusion. He also adds, “Living in an age of technology, one cannot stop information. It is true that sovereignty of a nation is very important but at the same time, the law has to be precise while defining a specific issue.”
While looking at examples of other countries, we can see that in adopting the “Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act 1992”, the American Congress clearly explained that it wanted to promote the availability of diverse views and information and at the same time it ensured consumer interests in the receipt of cable service. And to serve the nation properly the Act recommends an independent body to ensure surveillance on media. On the other hand, in Asia “The Broadcast Act 1950 (revision in 2010)” of Japan can be taken as an example, since they have issued an autonomous body for broadcasters many years before any other modern countries did.
S M Shameem Reza, Associate Professor of the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism of Dhaka University provides a comprehensive analysis of Bangladesh's broadcast media and its policy in his article- “Media Governance in Bangladesh: Rhetoric and Reality of Broadcasting Policy”. He says that formulating an international standard policy is needed in the media sector of Bangladesh, adding “In that sense, we may need to rethink our broadcasting policy issues both contextually and universally.”       
Apart from the justified criticism, it is also true that Bangladesh is ahead of India in terms of establishing a monitoring body for broadcasters. In India, along with Prasar Bharati Act 1990 and the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, there are at least 53 or more laws to scrutinise the broadcaster. But we can't just look at India and feel content about the quality of our “improved” broadcast policy. Writers, academicians, and media workers are rightfully emphasising on a policy framework that works towards an integrated, inclusive policy. We need to remember that our country is one which fought for its independence, and thus trying to snatch the autonomy of the media in this manner is not the way to go. For that reason alone there is a definite need to revise the draft once again before its passage in the next parliament session.  


Published: 12:00 am Friday, February 07, 2014

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