Webinar on The Fourth Estate: Under the Shadow of Restrictions and the Search for Ways Forward

23 May 2021
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Considering the current state of freedom of Media in Bangladesh and their contribution in upholding the public interest, a webinar titled, “Freedom of Media and Public Interest” was organized by the Centre for Governance Studies under the project name, “The Fourth Estate: Under the Shadow of Restrictions and the Search for Ways Forward.” The mentioned project is supported by Asia Foundation and funded by Ukaid. The online discussion was moderated by the Executive Director of the Centre for Governance Studies Zillur Rahman. 

The discussants of the webinar were Syeda Rizwana Hasan, Chief Executive, Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA), Shaymal Datta, Editor at Bhorer Kagoj, Zahirul Alam, Head of News, NTV, Julhas Alam, Head of Bureau, AP and the Chairman of Centre for Governance Studies(CGS) Dr. Manjur A. Chowdhury. In the webinar, the discussion mostly covered the contemporary challenges faced by the media industry in terms of protecting and promoting the rights of the common people. Besides, the ongoing heated issue regarding journalists Rozina was also pointed out by the speakers.

Before opening the floor to the speakers Zillur Rahman stated the recent crisis faced by freedom of the press in Bangladesh especially the issue of professionalism of journalists which is in question due to partisan between journalists. He further added the divisions within the journalists' union in the late nineties had contributed to the detriment of the interests of journalists. Considering the ongoing overall situation, he cited the crisis of media ownership, public and private pressures, internal and external conflicts, including the Digital Security Act, as the reasons for the outbreak of the miserable state of the press.

Julhas Alam, bureau chief of the news agency AP, said, "This pressure on the press exists even in the developed democratic countries and we have to accept it to move forward." Referring to the ownership of the media, he said that a huge amount of capital is required to establish a media house. We need to have a clearer idea of how respectful those who are giving this capital are to the concept of independent journalism. He emphasized the need to harness the collective power of journalists. Condemning the arrest of Journalist Rozina Islam, he said that as a media worker, he had taken a stand against it. He called on the government to come out of its authoritarian tendency and initiate a free and fair investigation so that people can get to know the actual scenario. Otherwise, he thought that the space for press freedom will continue to shrink. He added that the government needs to understand that people's participation in every work has increased and this can only be realized through independent journalism. He called upon the journalists to come out of partisan journalism and maintain unity despite their ideological differences. Julhas Alam in his speech raised concern about the editorial policy of the newspaper where he said a fine line should be established between ethics and standard to enhance the quality of such policy.

Zahirul Alam, Head of News at NTV, described the current situation as the consequence of continuous degradations in journalism, expressing his doubt whether journalism has become an institution at all. Referring to Rozina Islam, he said the opportunities and capabilities of investigative journalism in the country are declining. He said that a kind societal nexus against journalism has been formed. This kind of social power has created a dark alliance whose sole goal is to ensure that journalists cannot work independently. On that note, Zahirul Alam said, a dark alliance has emerged in this sector that leads to creating a social nexus that directly affects the quality of investigative journalism. The mushroom growth of media houses, directly and indirectly, is not good for freedom of media as it creates lesser check and balance and evaluation. 

Shoeb Chowdhury compared the Bangladeshi media with the international media, saying that the issue of ownership is very different in the case of the media in Bangladesh and the media law in Bangladesh is not compatible with international standards. Emphasizing the consensus of the journalists, he said, "What happened to Rozina Islam is nothing new for us because the journalists are being harassed whenever it hurts the interests of the government." To overcome this situation, he stressed the consensus of the journalists and said that if there is no consensus among the journalists, the freedom of the media will become groundless. He further said that it is baseless if we expect our media freedom without democratic freedom and political transparency. "We have now deviated from the notion of globalization and confined ourselves to a boundary," he said. He called on the people to come out of the notion of using the media for gaining personal interests and goals and said that we need to move forward emphasizing transparency and accountability. He also suggested increasing coordination and consensus among journalists to tackle the contemporary challenges.

Furthermore, Shaymol Datta, editor at Bhorer Kagoj, said that there is no space for free media in our country, and considering the current position of media, he spoke about four issues – media ownership, editorial organization, professionalism, and political division. He said the owners have been using the media in Bangladesh as a shield to protect their interests because of not having any proper policy for ownership. Where in the pre-independence period the media was a companion of the movement, in the post-independence period the media was a companion of the democratic movement, and where since the nineties the type of media has been changing due to ownership and the capitalist system. Regarding social media he said, social media is neither social nor media, so it is very harmful that, people are depending on this platform as a source of information. Therefore, being a journalist leader recommended initiating steps to build training institutions in the country to make sure they can do their job accordingly which to collect information and raise awareness among mass people.  

Syeda Rizwana Hasan who is a renowned activist, referring to the two articles of the constitution and comparing the current situation with them saying, "Where a journalist is strangled to gather information, how can the people be the source of all power?" Speaking about the media, she said that, not only has the media come under capitalist ownership, the media has taken this ownership without any kind of policy. The media is now blindly covering up the government's mistakes due to partisanship, which is holding the media back from revealing the truth – at the same time which is against the public interest. For this, the government will be also paying the price. She further said that just as the media has accountability, so does the court, and so does the government employees. She protested the incident that happened with Rozina Islam adding that our people’s phone calls are being tapped with our tax, with our money. In her speech, she mostly prioritizes the accountability of public servants as they are being paid through people’s tax. She also demanded the answer to why the phone calls of common people have been trapped and leaked. She further mentioned that the public interest cannot be upheld by curtailing the press freedom and if the public interest is not maintained then the government interest cannot be protected also. She referred to Rozina Islam as a symbolic figure and left an optimistic viewpoint about Islam's bail.

At the end of the open discussion, CGS chairman Dr. Manjur A. Chowdhury said that a group of people have raised their voice against the media, they want to suppress the media. That is why our investigative journalism needs to be stronger. Bangladesh, a prisoner of corruption, must be brought out. If we give up, we will go to the age of Matsanya.

In conclusion, the speakers suggested the journalist’s association come forward as a group to protect their rights despite their ideological differences. 

Date: 22.05.2021

YouTube Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z2wnFR2kkOs