Democracy and the role of media
"> Photo: Pavel RahmanThe nation observes Shaheed Nur Hossain Day on November 10. I was at Gandaria rail station that day in 1987 to cover the news of the blockade. People got the news within a very short time that someone had been killed by police at Zero Point. The person was Nur Hossain, who staked his blood and life for democracy.
I wondered how an unknown youth like Nur Hossain became a hero striving to establish democracy in our country even without being a big leader! I then realised that if we have patriotism in our hearts, if we love our country, if we want to make a positive change for the people, if we respect the rights of others, if we really support democracy, every one of us can become a Nur Hossain. Nur Hossain created an historical example and became an inspiration in the struggle for democracy.
In fact, Nur Hossain has raised a question in our minds: what is democracy that we all hope for? There seems to be confusion about what the word democracy means, and what the role of our media is in establishing it. The media is called the Fourth Estate, and plays a very important role in establishing democracy, and also in making the dreams of martyrs like Shaheed Nur Hossain come true.
Democracy means government by the people and for the people. Aristotle said: "In a democracy the poor will have more power than the rich, because there are more of them, and the will of the majority is supreme." That means all the people should be able to have their say in everything that affects their lives because the majority of our country are poor.
There are four basic elements of democracy:
(1) A political system for choosing and replacing the government through free and fair elections;
(2) Active participation of the people, as citizens, in politics and civic life;
(3) Protection of the human rights of all citizens;
(4) The rule of law in which the laws and procedures apply equally to all citizens.
Political analysts say that democracy is a means for the people to choose their leaders and to hold them accountable for their policies and their conduct in office. The people decide who will represent them in parliament, and who will head the government at the national and local levels. They do so by choosing between competing parties in regular, free and fair elections. Government is based on the consent of the governed. In a democracy, the people are sovereign -- they are the highest form of political authority. Power flows from the people to the leaders of government, who hold power only temporarily. The people are free to criticise their elected leaders and representatives, and to observe how they conduct the business of government. Elected representatives at the national and local levels should listen to the people and respond to their needs and suggestions. Elections have to occur at regular intervals, as prescribed by law.
The key role of citizens in a democracy is to participate in public life. Citizens have an obligation to become informed about public issues, to watch carefully how their political leaders and representatives use their powers, and to express their own opinions and interests. Democracy is a system of rule by laws, not by individuals.
In a democracy, the rule of law protects the rights of citizens, maintains order, and limits the power of government. All citizens are equal under the law. No one may be discriminated against on the basis of race, religion, ethnic group, or gender. If democracy is to work, citizens must not only participate and exercise their rights; they must also observe certain principles and rules of democratic conduct. People must respect the law and reject violence.
Experts in democracy point out that nothing ever justifies using violence against our political opponents, just because we disagree with them. Every citizen must respect the rights of his or her fellow citizens, and their dignity as human beings. No one should denounce political opponents as evil and illegitimate, just because they have different views. People should question the decisions of the government, but not reject the government's authority.
Every group has the right to practice its culture and to have some control over its own affairs, but each group should accept that it is a part of a democratic state. When we express our opinions, we should also listen to the views of other people, even people we disagree with. Everyone has a right to be heard.
Media specialists maintain that access to information is essential to the health of democracy for at least two reasons. First, it ensures that citizens make responsible, informed choices rather than acting out of ignorance or misinformation. Second, information serves a "checking function" by ensuring that elected representatives uphold their oaths of office and carry out the wishes of those who elected them. If the media is to have any meaningful role in democracy, then the ultimate goal of media assistance should be to develop a range of diverse voices that are credible, and to create and strengthen a sector that promotes such outlets.
The right to the freedom of speech/expression, as well as the freedom of the press, as a corollary of this right, represents fundamental values of the modern pluralist democracy. Without them, much of the progress achieved in the contemporary world couldn't be imagined. That is why all these rights must be defended. The experience of the last decade in Central Europe, for example, shows that the mass media contributed decisively in the construction of the civil society and in censuring the authoritarian trends of some politicians or parties. Also, it corrected and continues to correct, the excesses, negligence and management errors in the countries with a consolidated democracy. Without the freedom of expression, and thus without the freedom of mass media, a democracy cannot be conceived. A free press sometimes makes a democratic government's life or the life of public personalities difficult; it always makes a dictatorship impossible.
Terming journalism a catalyst for changes, civil society members of our country call for more responsible journalism in order to establish a truly democratic society and eliminate all sorts of injustices and discriminations. Journalists stand by the people in a crisis, and they should perform their role in better ways. Journalists should have high values of life and dignity, because they are the ones who give directions to the nation.
The writer is a media person, human rights activist, and an author.