Column by Mahfuz Anam: 50 years of journalism and the way forward
When we refer to our glorious period of journalism, we usually mean the pre-liberation period. Ironically, compared to today, the media was at its most rudimentary stage at that time. Independent mass media only consisted of newspapers—and that, too, mainly two: Daily Ittefaq and Sangbad—as there were no private television channels or radio stations; the state had monopoly on both. And of course, the world had no idea of the internet, online media or social media.
However, what we lacked in numbers, technology, trained human resources or general resources, we more than made up for in spirit. Ever since its birth, journalism in East Pakistan—now Bangladesh—was totally immersed in and devoted to our struggles to gain our rights for language, culture, economy, and social advancement. In fact, independent journalism, to the extent possible at that time, was "partisan" journalism all devoted to asserting the rights of the Bengalis. And we were extremely proud of that partisanship. It meant our very survival as a people.
Obviously, a new chapter in the history of our journalism began with the birth of Bangladesh. But before it could crystallise, a most grievous tragedy befell us.
With Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's assassination and the return of martial law and military's involvement in politics, which lasted till 1990, our journalism reverted, and correctly so, to the "fighting mode" for democracy and, in Abraham Lincoln's words, for a "government of the people, by the people, for the people."
The real growth of journalism in Bangladesh, in its modern sense, can be said to have started from 1991 onwards, with the restoration of democracy and elected representatives of the people coming to power, with the parliament playing its constitutionally assigned role of holding the Executive branch to account.
From 1991 till date, we have had a period of phenomenal growth of the media in quantitative terms of various newspapers, weeklies, TV channels, online platforms, etc. As for their overall quality, it is a different story.
As of September 30, 2021, there are 502 dailies and 348 weeklies published from Dhaka alone—perhaps the highest for any city in the world. In addition, there are 777 dailies and 347 weeklies coming out in the rest of the country. Many newspapers should have meant many views, many news sources, and many people participating in the flow of information from their respective social, economic and class perspectives. Whether, in Chairman Mao Zedong's words, a "thousand flowers" actually bloomed or it was a case of many plants producing the same or similar "flowers" is a matter of record—and it constitutes, in our view, the hidden story of the condition of today's media in Bangladesh.
The advertisement market is not remotely as big as to be able to support such a huge print media industry, and there is no government mechanism to support them either. The individual owners are not financially stable enough to sustain their publications over any length of time. There is, however, the world of government advertisement that has its own strengths and weaknesses—as well as the possibility of bureaucratic and political manipulation.
The natural question that follows, and must be answered as transparently as possible is: What is the business case for so many newspapers? And here the situation gets murky. If it is not the owners' money, if it is not government or private ads, then how are these papers sustaining themselves? Many years ago, the information ministry did a survey of newspapers in Dhaka and found that many of them had no office of their own; they shared space with others. Several of them had the same address, and many had no office at all. Here is a clue to the hidden story I referred to above.
While the government has an obligatory wage board, its own findings showed that, except for a handful of media houses, no one paid the official salary or anything close to it to their staff. Yet, it is repeated every few years and imposed on a few. Has this helped the growth of quality journalism in any way?
The situation of the television media, whose numbers may have reached half a century, are better in terms of staff salary and investment. Their problem lies in garnering enough advertisement and reaching their viewers on a subscription model, which is totally usurped by the cable operators at the moment.
Some estimates put the number of our unregistered online news portals to thousands. As of now, there are 262 registered online news portals, including the websites of the established newspapers.
There are numerous private FM radio stations as well.
With such a huge proliferation in terms of quantity, the question of the quality of our media remains a serious one, as mentioned earlier.
In my view, there exists fundamental confusion about the role of the media in the minds of the government, the owners, and within the industry itself—including among the higher echelon of media leadership.
As for the government, we are facing the same obstacles—perhaps a bit more severely—that the media in all new democracies face. After all, our struggle for democracy may have a long history, but our experience in practising it, save for the early years of liberation, is only 30 years old. Compared to governments of mature democracies, elected leaders in the new ones, including ours, suffer from all sorts of insecurities and are super-sensitive to every critical view, failing to even remotely grasp the logic of criticism as a cleansing process of governance. With the passage of time and growing differences, opponents in such democracies begin to be considered as enemies. The media, which publishes purely fact-based critical stories, is seen to be a part of the "enemy," and as such treated with suspicion at first, then with derision, and finally with attempted obliteration.
Even within these 30 years of continuous democracy—with a two-year gap when a military-backed caretaker government operated—the present ruling party itself has been in continuous power since January 2009, making for nearly 13 years at the helm. If we add their earlier stint of five years in power, the Awami League has been ruling Bangladesh for 18 years of the last 30 years of our democracy. Given such a long reign, can we hope for a more sophisticated reaction to media criticism in the future?
As for the owners, save a few, most of them have not grasped the speciality of this industry. Unlike what other things they own, the fact that owning a media house is a different ball game mostly escapes their thinking. If the heart of every product is quality, the quality of a media product is "credibility," which comes from objective coverage of the government, all public and private institutions, the business community, and all centres of power in general—including the media owner's own enterprises. Singing undue praise of the owners might please them, but it eats away at the media's credibility, thereby damaging the "quality" of the product, which in this case is the newspaper.
Many of the owners consider the media as a publicity wing of their industrial empires and treat journalists as PR persons, hired for their self-aggrandisement. Obviously, such owners do not consider the "media" as an independent business. It is a subsidiary created to run on "handouts" from other enterprises, and never meant to stand on its own. Hence one's own media must, by definition, look after the business interest of the rest of the businesses of the same owner which, at times, include denigrating a competitor.
Confusion among the journalists is just as damaging. Given our long tradition of journalism to support our just struggle for independence, and our long involvement in toppling military rule and autocracy, we have not learnt to distinguish between "advocacy" journalism and "objective" journalism. Here, I would like to make a strong and clear distinction between the period from 1975 to 1991 and from 1991 till date.
In the first period, except for the initial years of Bangabandhu's rule, journalism was devoted to fighting military rule. It was almost a continuation of its role during the Pakistan period. In that "fight," we were partisans for democracy, representative political leadership, accountable government, and all sorts of freedoms. We were not an "objective" judge of the political parties who were fighting against the military, or evaluating the programmes they were putting forward to replace the latter.
After the restoration of democracy, journalism had to necessarily move away from "partisanship" to "objectivity," judging each and every one of our elected leaders and the government they formed. They were to be tested on their performances and not on their intentions, howsoever noble and righteous. Regardless of our favourite political icon, our professional ethos compelled us to take up our pen against injustice, corruption, cronyism, and political partisanship. While earlier patriotism meant fighting for democracy and against military rule, presently patriotism meant unearthing misgovernance, abuse of law, and suppression of all freedoms—especially freedom of expression, which is the core of all other freedoms—regardless of the leadership of the day.
In my view, we as journalists have failed to grasp the fundamental ethos of our own profession and have dragged the old partisan mindset into it, thereby hampering the growth of objective journalism which Bangladesh needs today. It lies at the heart of our transition to the status of a developing country from an LDC.
If nobody else, we the journalists must understand it, internalise it, and practise it. That is our patriotism today.
Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.