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National Broadcast Policy: End of history?

The National Broadcast Policy approved by the Cabinet on August 4 and gazetted on August 6 has been widely debated featuring sharp criticism by the media, civil society and human rights activists who have found that it created scope of undermining the constitutional right to free media, access to information and freedom of expression. The government, the information minister in particular, has been arguing that the concerns are unfounded.

The drafting process of the policy was somewhat participatory, involving a committee that included media representatives and relevant experts. The draft was put up on the website to solicit public feedback. Scope was also created for consultation with civil society and other stakeholders. Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) took part and made some recommendations in one such consultation attended by the minister. TIB followed up with a written submission of comments on October 2, 2013, which was recognised on October 21 by the minister through a press note, for which TIB is grateful. After the adoption of the policy he reportedly told the media that TIB had endorsed it which, however, is not a view shared by TIB.

The policy can be viewed as a set of guidelines as the minister has told the media. It does contain some positive elements, such as: ideals and values of independence and Liberation War; respect to all religions, diversity and plurality; gender equality; emphasis on ethics and morality with special emphasis on children. Broadcasts cannot undermine non-communal values as well as religious sentiments. It prevents broadcast of anything that may encourage corrupt practices. It emphasises objectivity in dissemination of information, professional integrity, neutrality and responsibility. Significantly enough, the policy also stipulates that advertisements cannot be discriminatory on the basis of colour as well as physical and mental disabilities.

However, it also contains many provisions that are subject to such risk of motivated, subjective and arbitrary interpretations that it may turn out to be a convenient tool to restrict free flow of information, media freedom, and freedom of expression, thought and opinion as enshrined in the Constitution. The policy appears to be a brainchild of those who are intolerant of media freedom and critical views. It speaks of a mindset that “either you are with us or with our enemies.” It undermines the fact that freedom of information and free media are the key to checks and balances indispensable for democratic accountability.

For those who have pushed it through it seems that the history is going to end here. The government appears to have been motivated by short term priorities so as to present itself a tool to promote parochial interests. As a result, it has the risk of eventually turning into its own Frankenstein if and when it lands in the hands of political opponents.

Leaving wide options for subjective and politically motivated interpretations, the policy provides that views affecting the “interest of the public and the country” cannot be broadcast. Broadcast of speech of the heads of the state and the government has been made mandatory, whereas no such provision has been made for opposition leader, a position of high importance in a democratic society.

On the other hand, it prevents broadcast of anything that may be deemed harmful to political sentiments, a provision that can be subjectively used as per convenience. It contains a very important provision to protect privacy of the individual, but also creates the scope of restricting disclosure and flow of information in public interest when it stipulates that no information can be disclosed that may tarnish anyone's personal image, which may facilitate interpretation of disclosure of a corrupt activity or abuse of power to affect the image of the individual concerned.

The policy practically imposes a ban on reporting acts of sedition, anarchy and destructive events that may affect public interest. This may imply that people will have no right to know or to express opinion on such phenomena even when they have occurred.

The policy provides that no programme, picture or advert can be broadcast that may be viewed to be satirical and scornful to, or tarnish the professional image of the armed forces, law enforcement agencies, or those officials who are assigned with the task of preventing crime, conducting inquiry, investigation and punishing the guilty. It can be easily interpreted to practically proscribe disclosure of information on and expression of critical views about armed forces, law enforcement agencies and others to 'protect image.' This is against the spirit of democracy. Nobody or no institution can be above criticism in democracy.

For a government that is credited for enacting such important laws as Right to Information Act 2009 and Whistleblower Protection Act 2011, this is unbecoming, to say the least, and can hardly serve its credibility. The stipulation is also contradictory to the provision that even for those in the exemption list of the RTI Act it is mandatory to disclose information related to human rights violation and corruption.

Equally inexplicable is the provision that no such information, campaign, picture or opinion can be broadcast that may adversely affect Bangladesh's relations with a friendly state. This may open the scope of practical blackout of information and opinion on such matters as border killing and other cross-border issues.

Question may be raised about the commitment with regard to the effectiveness of the proposed independent Broadcast Commission, which should have been in the first place given the responsibility to produce the policy in consultation with stakeholders. It stipulates that the Commission may recommend to the government on matters related to broadcast license, without articulating whether and under what circumstances the Commission's recommendation can be overruled by the government. This practically leaves licensing authority in the hands of the government. Another blanket provision of control is that the government retains authority to decide on any matter not included in the policy.

One of the objectives of the policy is “to ensure accountability of broadcast media to establish social order and prevent moral degradation.” It is all about accountability to the government, not through self-regulation, nor to the constituency that the media and broadcast institutions serve, namely the people. More importantly, it presupposes that by “ensuring media and broadcast accountability” it will be possible to establish social order and prevent moral degradation which depends on so many other factors.

Although the policy is about broadcast and media, it will affect access to information and freedom of expression of practically all institutions and individuals. The government cannot afford to restrict such freedoms. The only type of regimes that finds it convenient to go that way is military or quasi-military or other types of authoritarian government. This is against the values and ethos of the people of Bangladesh; and certainly against the spirit of our Liberation War and independence.

The government should do everything possible to facilitate higher levels of media and broadcast freedom and refrain from anything that may curtail it. Arbitrary restrictions imposed on media and broadcast are against basics of democracy. History is replete with experiences that imposing restrictions on media and broadcast freedom is risky and counterproductive for all, not least for the government of the day.

The government will serve its own cause if it holds a series of further consultations with stakeholders to review the policy and make it more media and broadcast friendly. Imposition of policies and actions to control media and broadcast can only be self-defeating.

 

Iftekharuzzaman. Executive Director, Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).

 

Published on 17 August, 2014 in The Daily Star. Link