Media and politics

Asif Saleh and Mridul Chowdhury.

Published in the Independent on 10 October 2010.

This piece provides a brief history of the media’s role in politics over the past few decades.

THE media scene in Bangladesh has undergone a dramatic transformation over the past forty years. What initially started as an outcome of missionary zeal has now grown into a full-fledged industry, employing a significant number of journalists and plays an important role in the shaping of democracy in Bangladesh. With an increase in the number of distribution channels as a result of significant new investment, the media’s role has expanded in both the print and electronic domains.

However, with the rise of electronic media industry, insiders face many questions about their role, practices and business viability. On one hand, the media has been hailed for raising awareness about democratic principles and, on the other, it has been accused of serving as a tool for influence peddling. We analyze the political impact of the growth of mass media in Bangladesh, focusing particularly on how changes in media ownership and control have altered its role in politics, in particular how media has influenced the citizens’ ‘demand for democracy, accountability and transparency.’

Bangladesh now has more than four hundred registered newspapers. However, of significance are the top seven in Bangla and top three in English. Based on circulation data, the top seven Bangla newspapers together sell about 800,000 copies across the five divisions every day. The weekly newspapers have, however, been declining with very few reaching significant circulation, in part because almost all the leading daily newspapers have free weekend supplements, thus negatively affecting the demand for weeklies.

The electronic media sector is highly competitive, with about twelve independent satellite channels and one government controlled terrestrial channel. The degree of professionalism and public acceptance of the channels vary widely. As in the print sector, most of these channels are not economically viable and survive mostly due to political patronage.

Bangladesh now has more than four hundred registered newspapers. However, of significance are the top seven in Bangla and top three in English. Based on circulation data, the top seven Bangla newspapers together sell about 800,000 copies across the five divisions every day. The weekly newspapers have, however, been declining with very few reaching significant circulation, in part because almost all the leading daily newspapers have free weekend supplements, thus negatively affecting the demand for weeklies.  Although most news papers do not make profit, some of the local dailies like Daily Korotoa have remarkably been in business by creating a niche with its local coverage.

The electronic media sector is highly competitive, with about twelve independent satellite channels and one government controlled terrestrial channel. The degree of professionalism and public acceptance of the channels vary widely. Like the print sector, most of these channels are not economically viable and survive mostly due to political patronage and subsidy from owners’ other businesses.

Private radio channels too have been increasing in recent years. Until very recently, the government controlled Bangladesh Betar was the only radio option available in addition to the BBC Bangla Radio Service and Voice of American Bangla broadcast. However, within the last five years, several private radio channels are increasing the outreach. Though mostly focusing on entertainment and targeting the young urban population, they are now showing an increasing maturity in news reporting.

The birth of media in Bangladesh can be traced to the involvement of political parties in the early 1960s during the heady days of the anti-autocratic movement in then East Pakistan. The build-up to the national struggle for independence and the subsequent liberation war in 1971 saw the emergence of a fervent nationalistic media attempting to counter the media propaganda from West Pakistan. The immediate post-liberation era during the regime of the founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, ironically culminated in efforts at a ‘nationalization’ of the print media, thus largely stripping it off its independence. The infamous Printing Press and Publications Ordinance enacted in 1973 was used by successive governments for the next 18 years to keep a tight control over the media.

During the subsequent General Zia ur Rahman regime, although newspapers were ‘deregulated’, they continued to be placed under strict censorship by the military, an approach that was further intensified by the next military dictator, General Ershad. Public criticism of the government was discouraged, often resulting in years of incarceration.

By the mid-1980s, as unrest against the government began to mount, Bangladesh saw the rise of a new kind of media outlet – 32 page weeklies printed on inexpensive newsprint and carrying extensive political and social commentary. These new brand of weeklies, led by Jai Jai Din, became instantly popular. Though barely viable commercially, they served as spontaneous outlets of resistance against military rule. Jai Jai Din was banned twice, and its editor was exiled. Other papers such as Bichinta and Kagoj too met a similar fate.

However, as the anti-autocracy political movement gathered strength in the late 1980s, journalists became increasingly bold, eventually resulting in a media non-cooperation movement with the government and a refusal to publish in solidarity with the opposition’s campaign. This non-cooperation by the media played an important role in the eventual down-fall of autocracy, thus elevating the status of media and certain editors and journalists in popular perception.

The first caretaker government which assumed power after the fall of the Ershad regime in 1991 annulled the abusive and undemocratic Printing Press and Publications Ordinance, resulting in the reopening of newspapers and renewed press freedom. This was a new dawn in the print media of Bangladesh. In the new era of a relatively free environment, the media thrived. The complete dominance of Ittefaq that lasted through most of the 1970s and 1980s was soon challenged by a new group of journalists and papers. Ajker Kagoj was the first newspaper to be bank-rolled by a businessman and had a more contemporary approach to news. About the same time, The Daily Star was set up, challenging the dominance of Bangladesh Observer. Both its treatment of news and get-up was different, and the paper was printed at a modern computerized press, giving it a more contemporary look.

Slowly, other new entrants joined the market as Bangladesh’s economy grew at a rate of five to six per cent and corporates became more conscious of creating brand awareness through advertising. In the Bangla newspaper domain, BanglabajarManab JaminJai Jai DinBhorer KagojProthom AloShomokalJugantarNaya Diganta, Kaler Kontho to mention a few, entered the fray. Incidentally, all of them were financially backed by some of the biggest business houses in Bangladesh.

Private electronic media entered the scene in 1999 with Ekushey TV (ETV), which was the sole player till 2001. ETV effectively changed the media landscape by infusing high levels of professionalism in the field of television journalism. ETV acquired a wide reach because it had a terrestrial license, soon bypassing the popularity of the national TV channel, Bangladesh TV. Within a short time, ETV built a wide following among the public with its newscasters and reporters gaining instant celebrity status. The channel showed what was possible with a good mix of investment and a vision for the industry. However, in 2002, ETV was shut down by the government, ostensibly because of some legal complications. Insiders claim that it was a political decision after the change of government in late 2001.

 Within a year of the shutdown of ETV, new private channels started to appear. In less than five years, five new channels started to operate. Unlike in the past, it is worth noting that each of these was fully or partially owned by leaders of the governing political party.  Although not owned by any ministers, the newly issued channels under the new regime went to party favourites. And following the change of government in 2008, new channels emerged in a similar manner. No clear guidelines are in place yet on how these licences are issued.

Accompanying the growth and diversification of new distribution channels for information was the growing demand for quality. From 2006 till 2008, Bangladesh went through probably the most turbulent time in its recent political history. As a result, people’s appetite for news and analysis also increased. The year 2006 saw the first political talk show with expert analysts holding differing views coming together to analyze the day’s events. Tritiyo Matra, a pioneer of this trend, saw its popularity rocket in its first year.

The financial returns on making a talk show far outweigh costs, since production expenses are minimal. On average, each channel runs two talk shows every day, repeating them at least once the same day. Currently the twelve active channels produce about 18 TV hours of talk shows every day. Typically, the shows are telecast in the evening. Within a 12 hour news cycle, any event of consequence is subjected to detailed scrutiny and analysis. Over the past three years, the shows have technically improved to incorporate call-ins from the audience to ensure greater public participation.

The pioneer of the talk show in Bangladesh, however, was the BBC Sanglap, which started off as an experimental programme of the BBC World Service Trust. The aim of this show, where lawmakers are questioned by the audience, was to demand greater accountability from the government. The programme became extremely popular with Bangladeshi audiences and soon other talk shows began adopting its format.

With the declaration of a state of emergency on 11 January 2007, the country was once again plunged into an era of state suppression as regards press freedom. However, this time press censorship took a different form, enforced more through self-censoring by the editors rather than an outright banning of publications. It was alleged that the military controlled government defined clear boundaries that media outlets should not transgress.

Arguably, some of these pressures culminated in a change of ownership structure fuelled by an anti-corruption drive that put many of the media owners behind bars. During this period, different media outlets took varying editorial positions on the ‘interventionism’ of the military-backed regime – some critical while others broadly supportive of the effort at ‘cleaning up politics’ and the army’s anti-corruption drive. Whether this was a reflection of choice or coercion remains a matter of discussion, but it does appear that the news coverage was slanted to conform to boundaries that were not meant to be crossed.

A majority of the newspapers are affiliated or owe allegiance to some political party or the other, some more explicit than others. The two leading dailies –Prothom Alo and The Daily Star, both unquestioned leaders in Bangla and English daily newspaper segments have, however, generally taken more of anti-establishment and ‘pro NGO’ stands. Nevertheless, these two newspapers have also faced some public criticism for being ‘sympathetic’ to the military-backed caretaker government during 2007-2008.

Most of the private TV channels were founded by political leaders, who continue to maintain significant ownership. However, there are a few notable exceptions such as Channel I, ATN Bangla and ETV, which have been founded by businessmen and media personalities.

Most party-affiliated newspapers reflect clear bias towards their favoured party in terms of news content and editorial position. However, political bias is generally less marked in the electronic media than in print, and there is greater even-handedness in the coverage of the two major parties. One possible reason for this is that viewers can easily switch channels and see the other side of a certain news story, something that is not as easy with the print media. Probably, the fear of losing audiences if they appear too biased in their treatment of news has served to modulate their political inclinations.

There are generally two schools of thought regarding the level of influence that political ownership of the media has on public opinion. While some argue that political ownership of the media significantly influences people towards one party or the other through selective news content, biased treatment of news and even outright propaganda, others disagree, pointing to the relative absence of explicit political bias in most of the leading newspapers (indicating people’s general preference for politically unbiased news) and the electronic media.

While assessments of the possible influence of political ownership of media in shaping public opinion may vary, most experts do agree that the media affects the ‘demand for democracy’, even though there are differences of opinion as to the degree. The media’s role as a significant force in augmenting citizens’ ‘demand for democracy’ first became apparent during the campaign against the Ershad regime. Subsequently, in the 1990s, newspapers such as The Daily Star, Prothom Alo, and TV channels such as ETV, created a public appetite for professional and unbiased news, thus strengthening the foundation for democratic behaviour. For the first time, both in print and on TV, people saw a more balanced treatment of the news about and views of both major parties.

During the reign of the military backed caretaker government that lasted for nearly two years, newspapers played an increasingly active role in contributing to and augmenting the efforts of civil society for democratic reforms, particularly in demanding political party reforms and clean and honest candidates, as also a strengthening of independent commissions. The electronic media too played a significant role in ensuring that politicians engage with common people.

During this phase, ‘reformists’ emerged in both major parties demanding better democratic practices and transparency within parties, thus directly challenging the long-held dominance of Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina in their respective parties. The media, for the most part, highlighted the issues raised by the reformists. While some contend that the media coverage was due to directives from military intelligence, whose agenda was to highlight flaws in political parties, it is undeniable that the media played a crucial role in enhancing people’s awareness about non-democratic behaviour and lack of transparency within parties.

Simultaneously, there were several civil society groups such as Shushaner Jonno Nagorik (Shujon), which became extremely active in campaigning for clean and honest candidates and transparency in campaign expenditure. Leading dailies actively participated in these campaigns, highlighting information about candidates, tracking fulfilment of criteria set for political candidacy and closely monitoring campaign expenditure. The efforts of civil society groups were thus significantly augmented by the active participation of the media. The media also significantly contributed to the campaign against war criminals by encouraging talk shows and presenting non-stop news about the anti-corruption drive and the crackdown on war criminals.

The results of the 2008 election clearly indicate some success on both these counts, although it may be hard to establish any direct causality with the media efforts. Many of the allegedly corrupt people and  alleged war criminals failed to win parliamentary seats.

Efforts at strengthening democratic institutions, particularly the independent commissions, were also highlighted by a segment of the media. By facilitating interaction between the Election Commission and the public, the media helped maintain continued public pressure for accountability. Reforms in the Public Service Commission was another focus of the media, leading to significant changes in the administrative structure of the commission. The establishment of the Human Rights Commission too was a result of public pressure, augmented by the media. Again, though it is hard to establish direct causality, there is a pattern that significant coverage led to greater transparency of and proactive action by the government.

However, similar success cannot be claimed in the campaign for accountability of the Anti-Corruption Commission and the functioning of the special anti-corruption courts. Although both the public discourse and media coverage throughout the two years of the caretaker government was largely dominated by charges of corruption in the political sphere, there was much less focus on the working of the Anti-Corruption Commission itself in ensuring due and fair processes while framing charges and jailing people. Here was a chance for the media to create public pressure for more transparency. Instead, it chose to remain on the sidelines, ultimately failing to optimally utilize the power and influence that it had managed to gain over the years. Although the media did turn its attention to this issue during the last half of 2008, there were limits that were never crossed, possibly because of the covert role of military intelligence.

In free societies, the media’s role is often compared to that of the opposition in attempting to make the government accountable. Unfortunately, because of the failure of the opposition parties in Parliament, it has fallen to the media to ensure governmental accountability, so much so that analysts wonder whether the media in Bangladesh actually undermines parliamentary democracy. This role of the media will possibly remain significant so long as the politics of the country does not become sufficiently mature for healthy debate between the governing parties and the opposition inside the Parliament and outside.

However, with power comes responsibility. Bangladeshi media has yet to mature and shoulder responsibility to consistently provide analytical and unbiased views in their news coverage. With an increasing number of entrants in the industry, motivated more by influence peddling than professionalism, the industry as a whole is yet to become mature. Nevertheless, it has come a long way from where it started and has played a pivotal role by demanding more accountability from the state and its actors and in pro-actively engaging citizens in political processes. The citizens are more aware of the governance as a result.  The media today stands at a critical juncture where it needs to constantly evaluate itself and ask the tough questions.  They must report on the issues in depth rather than taking a preconceived editorial position on news reporting.

We will soon enter the fifth decade of Bangladesh. Even as democracy is strengthened and economic development touches more and more people, the media still faces challenge from powerful quarters. While direct censorship of the 1970s variety may not be on the cards, implicit pressures, legal challenges and incarcerations on flimsy grounds, and errand phone calls with threat of violence are still too pervasive for comfort. Ironically, media’s very success in standing up to power in recent years is what’s bringing it under stronger pressure.  And it would be a disservice to the country if media is compromised because of its own lack of professionalism.

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