Harmonious balance between media freedom, accountability to benefit all
Saying that freedom of media and accountability are equally important, Information Minister Dr Hasan Mahmud, suggested establishing an "Internet Ombudsman" to deal with fake news and rumours on social media platforms.
"We need to discuss deeply about how the unedited platforms (social media platforms) can be brought under rules and regulations," he said, adding that the government will take a decision in consultation with stakeholders in the media industry.”
The Information Minister made the remarks as the chief guest at the Annual District Correspondents' Conference 2019 of United News of Bangladesh (UNB) at its head office in the city on Saturday.
Saying that anybody can spread rumours from abroad using any ID, the Information Minister said it needs to be discussed globally when it comes to the creation of an Internet Ombudsman in Bangladesh to deal with rumours and fake news on social media platforms.
While UNB Editor-in-Chief, Enayetullah Khan, proposed establishing an Internet Ombudsman, the minister supported it, saying there are some rules and regulations and technologies which are not adequate to deal with rumours and fake news.
The Information Minister said the government wants to take Bangladesh's media freedom to a level of Europe, continental Europe, and the United Kingdom, and at the same time, the government wants to see accountability at the same level as seen in Europe and the UK.
"State, society, and everybody will be benefited if we see synchronization between media freedom and accountability," Hasan Mahmud said.
The Information Minister said the internet has opened a wider window for all, though the social media network has emerged as a big platform for spreading rumours and character assassination of anyone. "Now, Bangladesh has around 8 crore internet users, which was 8 lakh in 2008."
The minister said the government is working to implement the 9th wage board for journalists.
Former Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University, Prof AAMS Arefin Siddique, Honorary Professor of its Mass Communication and Journalism Department, Dr Shakhawat Ali Khan, Additional Press Secretary to the Prime Minister's Office, Nazrul Islam, and Deputy Head of Corporate and Compliance Affairs of the Cosmos Group, spoke at the inaugural session.
UNB Chairman, Amanullah Khan, and online Editor of Channel i, Zahed Newaz Khan, were also present on the occasion.
Some 100 UNB journalists from across the country, including those who work in Dhaka, attended the conference.
Prof Arefin said, as a teacher of journalism it pains him and shames him to discuss 'fake news' in the 21st century, even after the world has relied on the truth.
"News can't be false in any way as it always represents the truth. It's the responsibility of journalists to look for truth and present it objectively and accurately," he said.
Dr Arefin, a Professor of Dhaka University's (DU's) Mass Communication and Journalism Department, said information is as powerful as nuclear bombs. "So, disinformation can badly affect society, country, and the entire world."
Fake and fabricated information is being circulated through social media, taking advantage of the absence of an editing system. "Such disinformation and fake news can create instability in the country and society," he observed.
Dr Arefin said journalists must cultivate skepticism and present any information to readers after verifying the sources to separate fact from fiction.
He urged journalists to play their role with social responsibility by highlighting social problems with objective and accurate information. "There's no alternative to truthful news stories. Fake is always artificial and it can't be news. I hope journalists will work as soldiers of reality, maintaining objectivity, neutrality, accuracy, and professional ethics."
Prof Shakhawat said: "Though social media can't ensure authenticity, it is a fact that we're get breaking news first from this platform instead of mainstream media. Under the circumstances, it is very crucial to make social media responsible to check baseless and false information."
He urged the journalists not to be misguided by rumour and avoid filing news of rumours. "Rather, you can make a story about the reason and source of the rumour."
Prof Shakhawat also focused on working neutrally, rising above political belief and ideology.
"No party newspaper or politically-biased newspaper can attract readers. No partisan newspaper got popularity in our country and any part of the world. Journalists must present truths neutrally, maintaining professionalism."
He also bemoaned that journalists in the country are failing to play their due role in maintaining professionalism due to divisions based on political beliefs.
Enayetullah Khan said the changing media landscape is making it difficult to determine the best way to respond to fake news.
"Thorough fact-checking or media literacy might help, but we need to invent new ones to fight fake news and yellow journalism. We, at the United News of Bangladesh (UNB), are working on that," he said.
Among the solutions, the UNB editor-in-chief proposed creation of an Internet Ombudsman, a recommendation made before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.
"This solution would allow the actors/users and intermediaries of the internet in good faith to obtain a recommendation on licit or illicit content," Khan said.
He said opposing opinions and vibrant debate are very important for democracy and UNB has captured the discourse very quietly.
Khan stressed the importance of accountability: "We all have to be accountable in our personal life and social life."
Prime Minister's Additional Press Secretary, Md Nazrul Islam, said the journalist community, particularly district correspondents, can help check corruption by producing fact-based reports on anomalies of society as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has announced a zero-tolerance policy against corruption.
He suggested that district-level journalists make human interest stories alongside reports on different regular issues like road accidents to sensitize people to social problems.