An appallingly bad idea
We are alarmed by the Information Minister's comment that the government's plans to introduce a law aimed at preventing what it calls yellow journalism. Our response is plain, simple and without ambiguity. We believe that if there is yellow journalism in certain instances and if the government means to act against it, there are sufficient existing mechanisms to do it. A new law cannot be the answer to the problem. It will only become a problem by itself. The answer lies in empowering Press Council and allow it to do its job professionally and independently. Certainly there could be news reports which might be false or designed to malign individuals, groups and the government. But those reports can be dealt with by the Press Council once strong measures are in place to ensure the absolute independence of the body. We suggest that an independent Press Council is the appropriate body to deal with all matters regarding allegations of bad or motivated journalism. It must be provided with adequate funds, manpower, indeed infrastructure in order to function without fetters of any kind. That is what the government should do and not formulate any new law.
A fundamental concern of the government is its feeling that certain sections of the print and electronic media are dishing out false reports aimed at tarnishing its image. Here too there is a mechanism already, in the form of the Press Information Department, that can keep tabs on news items and arrange news briefings on a regular basis to set the record straight for citizens. Again, the government or its affected departments can seek redress through the Press Council. But on its own the government can put in place tried and tested systems which can rebut any misleading or false news items. If in neighbouring India every government department can have an official spokesperson to respond to queries about its activities, we can have a similar method here in Bangladesh. Additionally, the Principal Information Officer (PIO) as well as the Prime Minister's press secretary can arrange daily news briefings in order to keep the country apprised of developments and expose any news or report they consider to be false. Such briefings will be a chance for the government to make its position on the issues clear and also refute immediately any news report it considers motivated or malicious.
In this context, there is another point we feel about strongly. It has been alleged in the Jatiyo Sangsad that land grabbers and people with similarly dubious credentials have been coming out with newspapers of their own. It has also been suggested that no one with less than fifteen years' experience as a working journalist should be allowed to be the editor of a newspaper. To the first point, we say that it was the authorities who, without asking any questions, helped shady individuals and organizations acquire declarations for bringing out newspapers. Now when the government is contemplating a new law, we ask: since the authority to issue a declaration lies with the government, why did it not prevent questionable quarters from getting such declarations in the first place? To the second, we believe that the fifteen-year experience idea holds no water because we have already seen how new newspapers, with veteran journalists as editors at the dictate of their owners, have been going around vilifying individuals, business houses and newspapers in black and white, to the horror of citizens. Experienced journalists are thus no guarantee that bad journalism will not be there.
We are convinced that a new law for newspapers is a bad idea. It is fraught with danger and it threatens to put unfettered press freedom in jeopardy. We ask the government to jettison the entire idea in the larger interest of press freedom and by extension intellectual freedom in Bangladesh. We suggest that it utilize the existing mechanisms to ensure objective journalism in the country, especially the Press Council.