Editors voice concern over press freedom
Free press is under an onslaught from multiple spheres -- beginning from the legal system, to the corporate domination of the media, to politicisation of journalists, said speakers at an event organised by Sampadak Parishad yesterday.
"Protecting the interests of any individual or group is not the responsibility of a media outlet," said Syed Manzoorul Islam, former professor of English at Dhaka University.
He was speaking at a discussion titled "50 Years of Bangladesh: Media Achievements and Future Challenges" at the capital's the CIRDAP auditorium.
Manzoorul said newspapers are not corporate entities.
Shyamol Dutta, editor of the Bhorer Kagoj, questioned whether the industrial owners of media houses are interested in seeing journalism flourish.
"They are there to protect their own interests. We need to analyse why the big houses enter the media industry in the first place," he said.
Sampadak Parishad President Mahfuz Anam, also the editor of The Daily Star, said: "I entreat the owners to please understand that this industry is different. You maintain the quality of the products you manufacture. The quality of a newspaper is its credibility."
"Your journalists are not factory workers. They are independent thinkers. Your editors are not just employees. Their job is to defend the public interest," he said.
Nurul Kabir, editor of the New Age, commented on how criticism of the government and its machinery is now considered seditious.
"Sedition is being anti-state. But now criticising the government is considered to be sedition. Submitting to them is akin to slavery," said Kabir.
The speakers said the judiciary should protect the interests of freedom of speech and objective journalism.
Mustafiz Shafi, acting editor of the Daily Samakal, said a law like the Digital Security Act-2018 cannot be accepted in this country.
Mentioning that the judiciary and the media are protected by the constitution, Mahfuz Anam drew the attention of the government and said, "Please revisit the laws that hinder freedom of expression."
He questioned how many cybercrimes were stopped with the Digital Security Act. He said a new law must be enacted that would protect independent journalism.
Both Shyamol Dutta and Manzoorul Islam stressed the need for modernising and activating the Press Council so that that it can deal with issues related to journalists.
"It is never desirable for a journalist to go to a court to defend the expression of his/her views in the interest of the country. An active Press Council might be the solution. It has to be made in such a way that everyone has confidence in it," said Manzoorul.
The speakers denounced politicisation of journalists.
"If journalists start getting into party politics, then this will be a problem," said Manzoorul Islam. He called for doing some soul-searching.
He listed multiple ways in which partisan politics creeps into journalism resulting in biased views.
"Journalists sign up for political parties. There are many opposing journalist associations, which make it difficult to realise demands from a unified platform. We have not been able to reach a satisfactory decision regarding the wage board yet, for example," the former DU professor said.
Manzoorul said the achievements of Bangladeshi newspapers are immense. "When there are formidable limitations, any success is magnified. Even then, there are questions about how objective the newspapers of this country are in publishing the truth."
Joining the meeting virtually, Honorary Professor Sakhawat Ali Khan of the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism of DU said there should not be any division among journalists.
"Together, we all have to ensure real democracy. Only then the newspapers will survive," Sakhawat added.
MA Malek, editor of the Daily Azadi, said the main challenge of newspapers lies in retaining their audiences at a time when independent journalism is being threatened.
Zafar Sobhan, editor of the Dhaka Tribune, said two types of challenges are facing the newspaper industry. "Freedom of speech is very curtailed and such a time was not seen in the past," he said.
Senior journalist Reazuddin Ahmed pointed out that a journalist can have no friends but the current situation is such that everybody including the government is in opposition to free press.
Matiur Rahman, editor of the Prothom Alo, was also present at the programme, chaired by Mahfuz Anam and conducted by Dewan Hanif Mahmud, acting general secretary of the Sampadak Parishad.