Freedom does not come in fetters | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, August 06, 2014 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:53 AM, March 08, 2015

Freedom does not come in fetters

Freedom does not come in fetters

CABINET Secretary Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan believes the National Broadcast Policy 2014 has been formulated to ensure freedom of speech, free flow of information and social responsibility of the media. We can have no argument with him since as a senior civil servant it happens to be his unenviable job to present the political decision of the government he serves in all the positive light he can muster.

And so we will go beyond him. We will begin at the beginning. And we will do that by suggesting that when governments enact and pursue policies that have to do with a supervision of the media, there are reasons to think that some people at the highest levels of the state are worried about the free working of the media. Policies formulated by governments to ensure the freedom of the media do exactly the opposite. That has been our experience in the Ayub era of the 1960s. That is how things went awry in the 1970s. In the times of our own, locally grown spells of military rule spanning the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, we have observed the pernicious nature of 'advice' proffered to newspapers by government agencies in the middle of the night.

Now, the objectives of the National Broadcast Policy, we have been informed, have to do with certain responsibilities we cannot and must not shy away from. Radio and television must not air programmes that may spark or encourage separatism or unrest in the country. To date, no radio or television channel has done that. And now comes the significant question: what happens when indigenous communities in such regions as the Chittagong Hill Tracts are subjected to new repression? And how do the electronic media or any media for that matter handle circumstances when members of a minority religious community are seen to be at the mercy of a group of people whose strength lies in their majoritarian numbers? When political elements affiliated to the ruling party commandeer land belonging to the Christian community, should media reporting on the misdeed be suppressed because 'unrest' must be avoided? When a lawmaker seizes property not his own, builds an eidgah on it and compels the faithful to offer Eid prayers there, would it be wrong to suppose that his motives are suspect?

The Broadcast Policy is a warning against media moves to undermine people. Does that mean individuals or citizens as a whole? Our response is two-fold. In the first place, the media have never undermined the people of the country. If anything, they have consistently upheld the ideals of the War of Liberation, have vigorously struggled for a strengthening of democratic institutions, have consistently advocated transparency in the way government works. In the second place, if undermining people is a hint that individuals against whom allegations of corruption or other forms of wrongdoing surface must not be touched by the media, we simply cannot agree. If a politician engages in corruption, if a policeman tortures a detainee to death, if a soldier does things he should not be doing, if a journalist blackmails citizens, if goons enjoy the patronage of the political classes, if a civil servant lives beyond his means, should these acts not be brought before the nation through the media? And will that exposure of misdeeds be considered an attempt to provoke social disorder?

The Broadcast Policy correctly stresses the need to uphold the spirit of the War of Liberation. The media have been doing that. And what is that spirit of the Liberation War? It is these principles --- nationalism, democracy, socialism and secularism. How many of our political parties have exactly upheld that spirit? The Bangladesh Nationalist Party and the Jatiyo Party, both products of military rule, have happily worked at a remove from these principles. They have consistently undermined the secular ethos of the country through their adherence to the idea of an Islam-oriented social order. For its part, the Awami League, despite its constant refrain about its secular spirit, has over the past many years sought to appease the religious right through incorporating ideas of the religious majority on its posters and in its general behaviour.

The point is obvious. Before the media are sermonized on the spirit of the War of Liberation, it is for the authorities to undertake a survey of how far removed from that spirit the nation's political classes are at this point. That said, the stipulation in the Broadcast Policy on the need for truth and objectivity to be upheld on talk shows is understandable. There are certainly individuals who have seen nothing wrong in distorting the truth before the camera. These individuals can be dealt with under existing laws. Why must it be the responsibility of the television and radio channels to ensure that wrong or misleading information is not disseminated on their programmes? In a land where the distortion of history has reached majestic proportions, there will always be individuals who will peddle lies before the nation. And when they do that, it must be the responsibility of the state to haul such individuals before the law. The individual committing the sin must be punished, not the media channel that exposes his mischief before the country.

We have been informed that an independent commission will be in place to ensure a free working of the media. That is fine, for there are reputed bodies abroad whose job is to ensure the maintenance of ethical standards in the dissemination of news and opinion by the electronic media. The worry in Bangladesh, though, is whether such a commission will truly be in a position to exercise its freedom without interference by the government. In a social order where the Anti-Corruption Commission does not any more have the clout it possessed when Hasan Mashhud Chowdhury provided leadership to it, where the Election Commission comes nowhere near the admirable institution it used to be under ATM Shamsul Huda, it is hard to believe that the media-related commission the government means to put in place will actually be in charge of its destiny, that it will not turn out to be another extension of the ministry of information.  

Freedom does not come with fetters. Ideas do not grow under regulations. And progress is never ensured by thoughts of regression. If you need proof, there are always the lessons of history to go back to.

The writer is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.

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