Home  -  Back Issues  -  The Team  -  Contact Us
     Volume 7 Issue 49 | December 19, 2008 |

  Cover Story
  Writing the Wrong
  Special Feature
  Photo Story
  A Roman Column
  Child Rights
  Making A Difference
  Star Diary

   SWM Home

Cover Story

Covering the Elections

Ershad Kamol

There is no denying the fact that the electronic media is the most powerful tool for any politician, if he or she can get access to it that is. Because of instant audio-visual coverage of the political events TV channels are hugely popular. People get live news of the current political development through these channels. In the up-coming elections the electronic media has chalked out elaborate programmes featuring the election preparation at different constituencies, political views, talk shows and so on. Way ahead of the upcoming long awaited national elections, scheduled to be held on December 29, many political parties have demanded 'proper treatment' of news coverage. With the widespread reach of Bangladesh Television (BTV) as well as the 10 private channels, it is understandable that political parties want a fair share of the publicity. Many political parties have already demanded that the government ensure that BTV and Bangladesh Betar play a neutral role during the election as well as urged the mass media not to broadcast political advertisements.

Objective coverage of course is easier said than done. BTV and Bangladesh Betar have uncontested access in the remote areas, but neither of the state-run organisations enjoy autonomy. As a result both the organisations have traditionally played a partisan character to serve the interest of the ruling party or government. On the other hand, seven out of 10 private TV channels got licenses during the rule of the Four-Party Alliance based on political affiliation with cronies and party supporters getting priority since there is no comprehensive act or ordinance for giving such license. Thanks to the No Clearance Certificates (NOC) granted to these channels by the Ministry of Information, regular programmes are being aired. These channels are not paying the ministry either.

The partisan character of some of the TV channels owned by the leaders of political parties has been quite apparent in news coverage following the recent declaration of the election schedule. A particular channel owned by a leader of Bangladesh Jamaat-e-Islami remained conspicuous for being the only channel that live telecasted the announcement of the party's manifesto; another channel well connected with grand alliances telecasted live announcement of the manifesto of the Jatio Party. Moreover, poll coverage by another channel of the by-election of Dhaka 10 constituency held in 2004 inferred that these channels can be used for political propaganda, though it's expected that the mass media, keeping aside any political motivation, upholds the highest ethical standards.

During the most sensitive time (from withdrawal of election nomination date to the election day) a television channel has unabashedly broadcasted news on only the four party alliances candidates while covering different constituencies, though it did mention the names of the candidates of the grand alliances. It's news coverage on Dhaka-16, constituency where Barrister Rafiqul Islam Mia is the four party alliances candidate, had a communal tint; the reporter claimed that the candidate is expecting huge support from the newly enlisted Urdu speaking voters.

An attempt to impose a 'code of conduct' for the media while covering elections was shot down by irate journalists and media personalities on the ground that it contained too many contradictions. The code of conduct was developed by the Election Commission (EC) with technical support from Unesco to ensure that a sense of accountability and propriety is maintained.

They also highly criticised the CEC's announcement to the mass media not to publish election results before they are officially declared by the EC to avert confusion. The journalist community considered such an announcement an infringement on the freedom of the press. Even political leaders criticised the CEC's announcement. "We get election results faster in the media. It should not be stopped. If, it's done there is every possibility of 'manipulating election result' centrally. In fact, their stand is not clear. Restrictions on the media also raise serious questions as to the possibility of a coup during the election. There are a number of reasons to suspect that such a coup may be planned," says MK Anwar, a Bangladesh Nationalists Party (BNP) leader.

Muhammad Jahangir Begum Matia Chowdhury MK Anwar Professor Sirajul Islam Chowdhury

On the reason behind their concern about the 'Code of Conduct', Saiful Bari, chief adviser of the private channel, ATN Bangla says, "It was formulated like an ordinance, which the EC is not authorised to do. Moreover, it was full of contradictions, incomplete and the language of the act was like we don't know anything and they are teaching us the difference between minor issues such as the difference between news, editorial and post editorials."

"Instead of imposing restrictions on the media during the reports of election results, the EC could address the issues that would make the vote-counting system faster, more legitimate and transparent in the presence of representatives of the contestants. We want that the EC instructs the officials involved with election process to help them for election coverage," observes Bari.

The EC formed another five-member committee headed by Bari, to provide a media guideline within a week. The committee handed over the proposed "guidelines to facilitate cooperation between mass media and the EC for election coverage to the commission.

In the proposed guideline the committee demanded to set a control room so that journalists get required information. The committee suggested setting a media room at the EC office and other returning offices. Saiful Bari says, "Even they should install latest technologies for vote counting for swift coverage and they should also allow the journalists to use mobile phone and even helicopters for smooth coverage." For the suitable coverage of the foreign journalists the committee suggested setting up election booths at the major hotels.

However, like many reforming plans initiated by the current BEC, it bounced back from its stand. Subsequently the Chief Election Commissioner announced at a seminar that there would not be any code of conduct or media guideline for the up-coming election coverage.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information has set a guideline for the state-run BTV and Bangladesh Betar regarding election coverage. Jamil Osman, secretary of Ministry of Information, informs that like the previous occasions the ministry has formed a guideline for state own BTV and Bangladesh Betar. "We will ensure neutrality and authenticity in BTV and Bangladesh Betar during the election," he says. "All of the 39 registered political parties will be given equal treatment during the election."

Khaleda Zia Sheikh Hasina

He also adds, "Free opportunity and equitable access will be provided to candidates and representatives of political parties or alliances to participate in radio or TV debates, talk shows and discussions to express their opinions on issues relating to their election agenda, campaigns and policies."

But BTV's stand of giving equal importance to all parties is highly criticised by the political leaders, journalists and civil society members.

"In fact, it's not a neutral role that BTV plays but an 'abstract role' during the election and the rest of the time it's used as the instrument for propaganda by the government, though both of the leading political parties promised to ensure autonomy of these organisations after the fall of the rule of former President Ershad in 1990," says media analyst Muhammad Jahangir.

"Whoever is in power-- any political party or non partisan caretaker government-- wants a controlled media. Unless BTV and Bangladesh Betar are awarded autonomy they will never function properly," he adds.

In fact, media personalities and civil society members have demanded fresh recruitment in the state-run organisations for better news coverage. Even the Information Secretary admits that BTV and Bangladesh Betar are facing a crisis of talented hands, since no recruitment has been carried out for over two decades and many talented persons have left the organisations.

But, the ministry will not interfere with any newspaper or TV channel during the upcoming election unless they print or broadcast any reports that go against the interest of sovereignty of the country or instigate ethnic or communal violence. He does not even bother much if any private channel or newspaper takes a stand for a particular political party even if there is every possibility of criticising one party and giving support to another. "In the recent election coverage in the US, we have noticed that several newspapers and TV channels officially announced support to a particular party. So, what's wrong if a channel shows support towards any candidate or party?"

But, political leaders, teachers and media personalities differ with his view and insist that self-censorship does not always work. They demand that there must be a satellite television rule in Bangladesh and they at the same time, demand that the Press Council for newspapers be strengthened. Claiming the scenario quite unfortunate, many observe that there must be guidelines for mass media not just during elections but for all the year round.

Awami League leader Begum Matia Chowdhury says, "It's expected that the journalists disclose the fact considering their profession is committed to the welfare of the society. Their duty is to make people aware but not to distort information. There should not be any restrictions on press, but, there must be some guidelines. Why should the press be left out if there are guidelines for every other organisation? CEC's announcement for not imposing guidelines for the mass media in the election is not acceptable in the sense that there won't be any guidelines for press."

"Still, we hope the journalists will be responsible in their election-related reporting and write and publish or broadcast news stories in an objective manner. If any candidate, political party or alliance supporting the candidate makes an allegation against another candidate, party or alliance, the journalists must seek comments from both sides to have a complete picture," Anwar says, “Who is enjoying the freedom in press in Bangladesh: the owners or the journalists? To me it's the owners. And when the media serves the vested interest of the owner it damages politics and creates confusions. Based on assumptions political leaders have been presented wrongly in front of public. It is simply character assassination.

Rejecting Information Secretary's comparison with the US election coverage by the American press, Professor AAMS Arifin Siddiqui, a teacher of Department of Mass Communication and Journalism of Dhaka University, says, "Federal Communications Commissions in US strictly monitors mass media in the US. The editorial policy of a press can give support to a political party. Even a party can advertise in an electronic media. But, in case of hard reporting and spot reporting and in case of news analyses, objectivity and accountability is always maintained there."

"In Bangladesh, the press at present enjoys boundless freedom. Both control and limitless freedom is harmful. If the owner of a mass medium has connection with a political party, I assume, there is the possibility of being biased. And for check and balance there must be some guidelines not only for election period but a permanent one."

Considering that electronic media as more powerful than the print media these days, Professor Siddiqui demands separate guidelines for the private TV channels, since owners of many of these channels have political affiliation, which may lead to manipulation of news.

Professor Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, a former Dhaka University teacher of the English Department and social activist is skeptical about the objectivity factor: "We see advertisement of a few persons, gossip, and distorting news in the mass media. We don't find much investigative reporting that analyses manifestos of the parities. Not even in the talk shows, which are quite popular, do we see something constructive such as asking the leaders how they will implement their agendas or what they will do after forming government on controversial issues such as whether they will amend article 70 of the constitution. And what is the substance of the talk shows? In most of the cases they quarrel on the screen for our entertainment. Nothing fruitful comes out of such programmes."

"In news featuring the constituencies, we see that a few members of the public proclaim some common demands and the leaders of two alliances give almost the same commitments. We want more insightful reporting featuring how these leaders intend to solve the problems within the mentioned time frame. The reports also may feature the information of the candidates submitted to the EC so that the public can make proper choice," he adds.

Professor Chowdhury believes that constructive investigative reporting in a medium as powerful as the electronic media could force political parties to be more accountable to the public; at the same time such reporting could force parties to come out with concrete plans, which would help the country to develop.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Chairman Professor Muzaffer Ahmed is even more critical and demands immediate code of conduct for the press so that if anybody is affected by any reporting or sweeping comments published or broadcasted can get justice. " There is every possibility of yellow journalism when a person has many identities such as owner of mass media, businessperson and politician. In Bangladesh, sometimes we do see yellow journalism. Sometimes they don't follow universal code of conduct for journalism. The presentation is not proper. We have seen character assassination in news reports in the papers and talk shows in the electronic media," he observes.

Like the other media experts, media analyst Muhammad Jahangir believes that in the current scenario there is no alternative to the strength of the Press Council and he also demands a separate wing for electronic media under it. He has some specific suggestions for developing journalism in Bangladesh. He says, "Unless there is no effective press council how can a person get justice being affected by biased reporting or sweeping comments in popular TV talk shows. If I'm told to produce documents of my comment of media biasness, I've to work on it. But, I can prove that many of the reports are not done objectively. Many of the mass media do not even follow the basics of journalism. In fact, institutions such as Press Institute and National Institute for Mass Communication (Nimco) must conduct researches on the treatment of news in Bangladesh. But, unfortunately we don't see such activities in Bangladesh."

Jamil Osman Saiful Bari Shykh Seraj AAMS Arifin Siddiqui

"There are many awards for journalism. How come there should not be any punishment for yellow journalism? At present the Press Council can only scold an editor for publishing distorted news but the Press Council should have the right to ask the editor to take punitive action against the reporter for yellow journalism. Even it should also ensure job security for the journalists. Moreover, if any error or misrepresentation has been identified in already published or broadcasted materials, the journalist/media house concerned shall give high priority to carrying out the corrections immediately," he adds.

Muhammad Jahangir also proposes the establishment of a mechanism for private TV channels under the Press Council. For further transparency, he demands that producers in broadcast media should maintain full records of all news bulletins, and recordings of all other programmes related to the election, including party election broadcast (if any) for reference in case of any complaint or dispute at least for two months." So that anybody being affected by the comments of news analysis programmes and talk shows can take legal actions," he says.

Being critical about the talk shows and programmes that annalyse news and are frequently aired in different private TV channels, Muhammad Jahangir says, "The guests of the programmes act like reformists. Is it logical that one person for 15/20 minutes should deliver sweeping comments accusing others? And the accused never gets any chance to defend themselves. It does not follow the ethics of journalism. Who will be responsible if any guest of the talk shows deliberately gives wrong information and politically biased comments in the talk shows? So it should be monitored properly."

"And even in most of the talk shows we see the same faces repeatedly and sometimes both of the participants of the talk shows belong to same alliances. In fact, sometimes I feel we are forgetting balanced journalism. The accused never get any chance to defend themselves in these talk shows," he adds.

Shykh Seraj, director and head of news of Channel-i, also admits that there should be some guidelines for private TV channels. However, he rejects the notion that there are many complaints against the electronic media. But he admits that self-censorship does not always work properly. "If a journalist is fascinated with a party, s/he may consider a report neutral but, it may be appeared biased to others. So, there must be some guidelines for electronic media and channels must follow it. The guideline will not only ensure our journalistic freedom, it will also safeguard us from the interference of other 'sensitive agencies'. Moreover, it will definitely ensure accountability of the TV channels," he says.

"But, private TV channels have mature over the years compared to previous election experiences. We've not yet done anything that can be labelled as 'media coup'," he says.

Shykh Seraj also claims that reporters must maintain balance in the coverage of candidates and political parties. A particular candidate and political party should not be given substantially more coverage than another.

"Guests of talk shows are briefed properly not to take advantage of the programmes to carry out their personal vendetta against rivals," he adds.

Shykh Seraj believes that there is possibility of 'disaster' because of competition amongst the mass media during the election result coverage. "Every channel will try to draw the attention of the viewers. If all the channels give similar data and one channel gives even advanced result, though not credible one, people will be after the channel. In that case self-censorship may not work properly. Sometimes it's difficult to follow ethics because of competition."

But, Shykh Seraj claims because of political connections, if any channel gives support to any particular party during the election the government should not interfere unless they commit any major offence. "The government should have considered this while giving licenses."

About the duty to make corrections, Shykh Seraj says, "It's not possible to give rejoinders of the reports in TV channels. We have to broadcast news every hour, so there is possibility of minor mistakes. And I've not seen it practiced in other countries."

But, rejecting his comment Muhammad Jahangir says, "A mechanism should be created to give rejoinders. It's also done by the BBC and other broadcasting companies abroad."

But, the media personalities are in a dilemma in case of carrying paid political advertisements. Political parties in most of the countries in the world buy slots in TV channels and broadcast their propaganda during the election campaigns. ATN Bangla will provide such slots for political parties, however, Channel-i will not do it.

About this, Shykh Seraj says, "Such programmes are broadcasted in many countries of the world. But, to me it should be avoided since democratic practice in our country has not yet reached that point that a party will tolerate if any media gives support to a particular party. If it's done there is every possibility of facing problems."

"What's wrong if a TV channel allows a party to give advertisements during the election?" asks Saiful Bari. "It's my business policy. One can't dictate my internal policy unless I do anything against the sovereignty of the country or distort facts. It's quite obvious that channels owned by a political leader or a business man affiliated with a particular political party will play a partisan role during the election," says Saiful Bari.

Moreover, it is expected that the government enacts a comprehensive act for giving license to launch private TV channels, since there are about 150 applications seeking license. It should also review the license process of the existing TV channels. Meanwhile, the people demand that overcoming all limitations, the mass media in Bangladesh will reach a state of maturity so that it can play an effective role not only during the elections but also through constructive criticism of the government and help the country to go forward.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008