Why we need to rethink the Press Council
The ongoing debate on the proposed amendment of the Press Council Act of Bangladesh appears to be quite strange, as the initiator of the amendment, the council itself, has been embroiled in controversy. Its refusal to share the latest draft amendment, which has been approved in principle by the cabinet, despite being requested by the highest body of the country's professional journalists – the Editors' Council – raises serious questions about the Press Council's intentions. The move first came to light in early April, when the current chairman of the Press Council, Justice Nizamul Haque Nasim, announced publicly that the law would contain provisions to penalise journalists up to Tk 10 lakh for false reporting. However, the cabinet, while giving its nod to the amendments, has reportedly changed the terms of penalties.
The current controversy over the proposed legislation seems to be revolving around the following questions: 1) What is the reason for a sudden rush to amend the existing law? 2) Why so much secrecy? 3) Why are journalists not getting an opportunity to see and express their opinion about a law that will affect them the most? 4) Why do we need another stringent law to punish journalists and the press for alleged violations of ethics and mistakes?
The official explanation for the need for such a law is to combat misinformation and fake news. Unfortunately, this argument is wholly misplaced. It has been proven time and again that mainstream newspapers have stricter gatekeeping mechanisms in place, and most of the misinformation spreads through non-traditional media, social media and other online platforms. Besides, the media should not be held responsible for reporting misleading claims made by politicians and public figures.
The secrecy surrounding the legislative process is quite shocking, as the council failed to provide the original draft and meeting proceedings where the decision was made to request the government for amending the 1974 law. The draft could have been published either by the Cabinet Division or the Ministry of Information – as was asked by the Editors Council and Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) – but neither has done so.
The Press Council, in response to the plea by the Editors' Council to publish the draft, issued a press release on August 23, claiming that the process to amend the law began in 2005. It further claims that the draft was agreed upon at a general meeting of the council attended by representatives of the journalists' union, the Editors' Council and the owners' association. According to the press release, the draft was published on the information ministry's website on September 18, 2019 for public consultation. But many members of the council expressed their ignorance about such a draft. A prominent member of the council reportedly said the issue was discussed in the previous committees of the council. A BSS report on July 3 quoted Information Minister Hasan Mahmud telling the newly formed Editors Forum, that "the Press Council has already taken initiative over the issues placed by the Editors Forum." He was responding to a 10-point demand submitted to him by the Editors Forum. These stories indicate that empowering the Press Council to sentence journalists is not something out of the blue, rather a result of a long-term plan.
Now comes the most crucial question: why does the government want to bring in another harsher law? As surmised by this paper's editor, Mahfuz Anam, who is also the president of the Editors' Council, "There are more laws to restrict journalism and free speech than there are laws to restrict terrorism, smuggling, money laundering, food adulteration, selling fake medicine, etc." According to him, at present, there are nine laws that directly or indirectly affect the media, and including the Press Council (amendment), four more are in the offing.
The Bangladesh Press Council and similar institutions in other countries have at least two marked differences in their characteristics: the level of independence, and funding. The oldest press regulatory body in our part of the world is the Press Council of India, which was founded in 1966, and is purely an independent self-regulatory body in its true sense. It was abolished during the emergency, but was re-established in 1980 with the same objectives. Those objectives are: Preserving the freedom of the press, and maintaining and improving the standards of newspapers and news agencies in India.
The Press Council of India is empowered to adjudicate on complaint cases it receives, either against the press for violation of journalistic ethics or by the press for interference with its freedom. It can warn, admonish or censure an editor or working journalist who commits any professional misconduct, but has no power to impose any financial penalty or award prison terms. It is also empowered to make such observations as it may think fit in respect of the conduct of any authority, including the government, for interfering with the freedom of press. The 28-member council does not have any place for bureaucrats or government officials, but holds MPs from both the ruling party and the opposition instead. The Press Council of India gets funding from a levy imposed on newspapers and agencies according to their circulation and turnovers, which helps ensure its independence. It also receives grants in aid from the central government.
In the UK, the Press Council was renamed, in the later part of the last century, as the Press Complaints Commission (PCC). But against the background of scandals of the violation of citizens' privacy, two new organisations – IPSO and Impress – have emerged, replacing the PCC. Some newspapers are members of the Independent Press Standards Association (IPSO), while others are members of Impress. Neither of the two institutions has any representation from the government, and the government has no role in regulating them. Many European news organisations, too, have voluntarily joined one of these two UK-based self-regulatory bodies.
Though the Press Council Act, 1974 appears to be identical to the Indian Press Council Act, particularly in relation to the objectives and composition of the council, it doesn't have the freedom to review interference from any other authority – statutory or otherwise – and the government. The Bangladesh Press Council is also fully dependent on government funding. As a result, its independence to act as a self-regulatory body remains susceptible to government interference. Media reports also suggest that the proposed amendment to the act expands the council to 16 members in which the majority representation will outnumber journalists and significantly increase the potential of governmental influence.
We have ignored our needs for effective self-regulation for too long, and the government has taken this opportunity to replace the practice with putting in greater control on regulating the media to its own advantage. The changes we need are to allow the press more freedom, instead of penalising it for trivial lapses to advance the government's political agenda. It is an opportunity to start anew, instead of what was passed on to the new chairman of the Press Council. We would strongly argue that the regressive draft should be withdrawn and a large scale consultation should be launched to find a way forward for better self-regulation to protect press freedom and improve the standard of journalism in the country.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist and writes from London, UK. His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1