How is shrinking media space affecting our democracy?
The media is often considered to be the fourth pillar of a democracy—while the other three pillars are the legislature, executive and judiciary. The media counterbalances these three pillars by playing a role in maintaining check and balance and thus contribute to ensuring their transparency and accountability. Now, how can we make sure that these three pillars are functional and effective? It is the citizens who will judge and without an informed citizenry, these pillars will be fragile and remain dysfunctional.
The media plays a vital role in creating an informed citizenry through ensuring the free flow of information. This can only happen if the other three pillars complement the fourth pillar. Sadly, the issue of "shrinking media space" is very relevant for Bangladesh these days, when we have impressed the world with a notable track record of growth and poverty reduction.
Media vs other pillars of democracy
Perhaps more so now than ever, the legislature and the executive are applying different formal and informal tactics to restrict the media and freedom of expression for journalists. The judiciary on the other hand has impacted the media both positively and negatively. For instance, it has been a bulwark against efforts to undermine the free media in Bangladesh, but did not strike down the restrictive laws and actions of the government which limits the freedom of the press.
The concept of "closing or shrinking space" for the media is not an old one, rather it is something that journalists and media practitioners have been facing for a very long time. The Covid-19 pandemic has made the situation even worse—not only in authoritarian countries, but dozens of democracies around the world have also been imposing different formal and informal controls over the media. And, it has happened sometimes in the name of safeguarding the public interest.
Governments in both authoritarian and in a good number of democratic countries are pushing back against democratic progress and limiting press freedom. Almost in all cases where media freedom has been curtailed, the other three pillars have failed to serve their mandate. Governments are legitimising their actions by creating legal and logistical barricades to democratic institutions, including the media. As a result, the manoeuvring space for the media has been reduced to a worrying level.
The 'new normal' is a global trend
We have seen this "new normal" in the US during the Trump era. It is now frequent in several South Asian democracies including the biggest democracy in the world, as well as in some EU member states. A good number of countries have witnessed significant progress related to the economy, health and education. Governments, their development partners and the international community have celebrated these successes with a great deal of optimism. The world's transition toward the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 is a reflection of this optimism and it has received unconditional support from the people, institutions, civil society and last but not least, from the media.
Sadly, the governments in question have failed miserably in safeguarding and protecting the freedom of the press and media. Freedom of the press and the media, according to various global rankings, was at its lowest in 2021. And this happened at a time when all pillars of democracy, the government, media and the democratic institutions had a wonderful opportunity to fight the Covid-19 pandemic together. Nothing can better explain the paradox than a 2021 analysis by the Reporters Without Borders (RSF). According to RSF, free flow of information which is the vaccine against disinformation, was blocked in more than 130 countries in 2021.
Technology and its easy access have empowered the people by making information easily available. Netizens can now publish anything they wish every single minute. This is indeed somewhat of a revolution. But this revolution has its very own and unique flaw—the spread of disinformation. From manipulating national elections to combatting the pandemic, over the past few years, the spreading of disinformation has influenced our lives and mindset.
Had the media been allowed to fight disinformation, the world could be a better place and we would not be talking about the shrinking media space that is ultimately affecting the democracies around the world. In the early stage of the pandemic, we saw how media censorship in China prevented the people and the world from getting real information about the outbreak. The world is now paying the price—fighting the pandemic and the spread of disinformation. We also saw how disinformation influenced the US election in 2016 and its subsequent impact all over the world in the following years.
The world is a dangerous place for journalists
The media's overarching role to search beneath the surface and find the truth and disseminate it among the people is under threat. Traditionally, such threats were common in authoritarian and dictatorial countries. But the threat is now also emanating from unanticipated sources—elected governments in several democracies now consider media as an opponent.
There is ample evidence to suggest that instead of being a supporter of press freedom, governments in democracies have adopted direct and indirect controlling measures forcing the media to give them favourable treatment. While Freedomhouse has attributed this to the global decline of democracy, it is also contributing to the declining trust in democratic institutions leading to their decline.
The Covid-19 pandemic could be a golden opportunity for governments around the world to ensure easy and uninterrupted access to information. But the opposite is happening. Exposing vaccine injustice and corruption by the media have not always been welcomed by the government and in many cases, journalists became victims of state-sponsored repressions. Not only that, governments' control over the media and censorship have made the world a more dangerous place for journalists. Journalists paid a very high price in bringing out the truth in 2021 when, according to UNESCO, 55 journalists were killed. Two-thirds of the victims had died in countries where there were no armed conflicts.
Legal barriers, state patronage and corporate control
Adoption of draconian laws and internet shutdowns by governments have become more frequent than in the past. Criticism of the media by political figures and powerful quarters and growing threats to digital safety have led to journalists self-censoring. Two more contributing factors to the shrinking of media freedom are government patronage of preferred media establishments and corporate control over the media.
This has led to a division among journalists, with some favouring the government, while very few practice impartial and unbiased journalism. In many cases, the trend of favouritism becomes the mainstream and the latter struggles to survive in the face of state-engineered formal and informal oppression.
While the role of the news media varies from one democracy to another, a free press contributes to maintaining the balance of power and ensuring good governance. Democracies around the world have constitutionally guaranteed the freedom of the press. For instance, in the US, freedom of the press is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution. In Sweden, the Freedom of the Press Act of 1766 forms a part of the Swedish Constitution.
Article 39 of the Constitution of Bangladesh guarantees freedom of the press. The law can impose any reasonable restrictions in the interest of the State's security, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality, or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence. Sadly, the government is only interested in restricting freedom of press by misinterpreting the constitutional provisions and by adopting draconian laws and policies.
In Bangladesh, such laws and policies include the Censorship of Films Act-1963, Printing Presses and Publication (Registration and Declaration) Act-1973, Community Radio Installation, Transmission and Operation Guideline-2008, Bangladesh Information Security Policy Guideline-2013,
Information and Communication Technology (Amendment) Act 2013, National Broadcasting Policy 2014, draft Broadcast Act-2018 and the infamous Digital Security Act-2018 that directly or indirectly restrics the news media. However, no law ensures freedom of the press and the safety and security of the journalists.
Favouritism is killing journalism
Repressive laws and policies are not the only problems that are limiting press freedom. Impartial and unbiased journalism is getting rarer every day in other ways. So, even if press freedom is guaranteed by the constitution or laws, it will never be free unless journalists practice impartial, unbiased and fact-based journalism.
Except for a few, a good number of mainstream media establishments in Bangladesh took little time in exposing the identity of a young girl whose body was recovered from a flat in Gulshan in late April 2021. The media exposed everything it knew about the girl, while it initially decided to remain silent over the most critical aspect: "who was involved." A media conglomerate went even further by making a concerted effort to malign the character of the victim. The integrity of the press came into question as it not only failed to uphold the spirit of a free press but also exposed a harsh reality of favouritism. There are plenty of similar examples in today's democracies in the world.
The key role that an unbiased and impartial media industry in any given democracy plays, among others, is keeping the people informed and aware about government decisions that affect their lives. It also holds the government and democratic institutions accountable.
For instance, by holding the election authority (for Bangladesh it is the Election Commission) accountable for free and fair election or holding the human rights authority (National Human Rights Commission in Bangladesh) accountable for protecting the rights of every citizen in the country.
The absence of media freedom restricts peoples' participation in the governance mechanism that ultimately results in unimpeded abuse of power by the elected but authoritarian regime.
Shrinking global media freedom is interlinked with the decline of democracy. When democracy is on the decline, the government in power usually attempts to limit the civil and political rights of its citizens and restricts media freedom. The democratic institutions that are meant to protect these rights either stay on the sideline or echo the message of the authoritarian regime.
Attacks on media freedom are often connected with the abuse of power by the authoritarian regime that attempts to eliminate apparent fears of losing control over state affairs. Shrinking media freedom thus gradually undermines rule of law, flouts transparency and accountability, promotes favouritism by eliminating competition and creates unabated scopes of political meddling by the powerful.
The route to freedom
Journalists, media entrepreneurs and civil society groups must speak out for good governance. Each group has its share of responsibilities—journalists must uphold media ethics, entrepreneurs should run their media business with a greater level of professionalism and without interference to benefit themselves, groups or individuals and the civil society should monitor government policies and actions, propose alternatives that are beneficial to the people and hold the government accountable. When there is a need, all three stakeholders should collectively demand legal reforms and the adoption of safeguarding laws and policies. Individuals and organisations that believe in media freedom and want a functional democracy should expose illusory and surreptitious activities of the authoritarian government. Such actions will support, encourage and create opportunities for the media to rebound from authoritarian repression.
Meer Ahsan Habib is a communication for development professional. His Twitter handle is @meeriyadh