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OP-ED: No push-button to achieve press freedom

  • Published at 10:51 pm May 7th, 2021
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What is the state of journalism in the country? 

This is certainly not a happy time for the media in Bangladesh. To my mind, for two reasons. One, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, hundreds of journalists as well as other employees of news organizations have lost their jobs without any hope to be re-employed in any other organization. 

And two, very recently, the news treatment of a woman’s unnatural death in Dhaka’s Gulshan district has cast a phenomenal shadow on the credibility of our media.

I haven’t seen the media to be so critically viewed in my entire professional life. Tens of thousands of our audience and readers were seen openly coming out with enormous black bile against the press. I was overcast with sadness. Yes, simply because I have spent most of my professional years as a journalist, and I still bear an admiration for the profession.

And it is in these circumstances we have observed World Press Freedom Day.

I saw a few op-eds on the freedom of the press on that day. Most of them were quite rhetorical, and many were pregnant with dreams to have a free press. To my mind, there’s no push-button to achieve freedom of the press in a country like Bangladesh. Let’s forget the state of affairs in other countries and focus on ours, where the very existence of the media has entered a very complex environment.

The media in our country has come a long way, and has gone through different phases since 1952. Our press was indeed a crucial driving force behind our national independence. We had another phase from 1972 to 1975. Our media entered a new phase from 1975 to 1982. Since 82 till 90, Bangladesh’s media had a glorified pro-people role. After the fall of autocracy, we began a new journey which is still continuing.

More journalists, but less freedom

In the last 20 years, the media flourished in terms of numbers and expanded its news operations. We never had as many journalists in the country as we have now. However, that does not mean that press freedom has been achieved in Bangladesh.

Suppression, self-censorship, and compromise in the media, harassment and, sometimes, assassination of journalists are not uncommon in this country. They have always been there and we all know this. We also know how professional journalists themselves, directly and indirectly, get involved in politics. 

Of those who may not have gotten themselves involved, many certainly have tried their best to get closer to the ruling elite in order to achieve various kinds of benefits.

Now, we must really understand what happens to the quality of journalism when the journalists knowingly and unknowingly prop up the ruling elite. 

This brings us to the question: What is the purpose of the press? We’ve heard, perhaps thousands of times, that the media is the fourth pillar of democracy. But what is the purpose of this fourth pillar? 

Just inform the citizens what the position and the opposition are doing for them? Strike a balance between justice and injustice? Unearth corruption, unlawful activities, and irregularities in both the public and private sectors?

The list of my questions could be long, but, yes, these are roughly what the new entrants are advised when they enter the realm of journalism. 

However, when we talk about the purpose and the objective of journalism, there’s hardly any news organization that has clear editorial guidelines of their own and the journalists trained accordingly.

Freedom of the press may not always mean that you’re a detective and are in a profession to find fault in everything. But, based on your editorial guidelines and journalistic ethics, you’d operate and exercise freedom of expression. 

And that’s exactly what the journalists want to do. However, many problems may start when the investors of news organizations fail to follow those guidelines and ethics. 

What do the media men expect from the owners of the news organizations? They expect them to follow the same principles of integrity that the journalists want to follow. But it doesn’t happen all the time; and especially when the ownerships go to politicians. \

And if you consider Bangladesh’s media scenario, we see many news organizations are owned by politicians who are also businessmen; and it’s a distant dream that the journalists working in the organizations owned by them would exercise freedom of expression. It’s pointless.

Poorly paid

Having said that, kindly allow me to mention the financial state of the media people. Many, these days, blame the journalists, alleging that they have fallen short in their integrity. 

Of course, there’s a risk that journalists sometimes may also become corrupt. Why wouldn’t they? When all of society is in an abyss of corruption, how do you expect them to remain unpolluted gemstones? 

And especially when they are so poorly paid. If you run a survey, you’d find that each and every media person in this country has to do something other than their job to make ends meet.

You cannot expect to write the fairytale called “freedom of the press,” keeping the workers of the press in great poverty. One fine morning, a business person would dream to become an owner of a news organization and s/he would gather a hundred journalists from the market and employ them in his/her newspaper/portal. 

When s/he runs out of financial fuel to run it, s/he stops paying the workers. This is how the wrong entrepreneurs have entered the media market and if this trend continues, the press will lose further credibility and finally perish.

The content, in terms of news, is also a big challenge. To my mind, the press now, in its battle to financially survive, is competing with the social media and the media-on-the-go. The news that the news organizations are churning out don’t relate to the psyche of the people. 

The press should never consider social media as its competitor. If it does, it will lose its finesse. What we are witnessing in the form of a news rush may not be the media at all.

Consciously or subconsciously, we never thought of news as a product. News has always helped develop a collective awareness of the society in order to progress, to think freely, and to create a future. But it has now become one. This product is now being push-sold. The pristine character of news is lost.

Therefore, only one factor may not be responsible for waning press freedom. The challenge is multifaceted, and requires much more attention than it actually gets. 

Ekram Kabir is a yogi, a story-teller, and a communications professional. His other works can be found on ekramkabir.com.

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