Chronicle of Mahfuz Anam: 50 years of journalism and the way forward

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When we refer to our glorious period of journalism, we generally mean the pre-release period. Ironically, compared to today, the media was at its most rudimentary at this time. The independent mass media consisted only of newspapers – and that too, mainly of two: Daily Ittefaq and Sangbad– because there were no private television channels or radio stations; the state had a monopoly on both. And of course, the world had no idea of ​​the internet, online media, or social media.

However, what we lacked in numbers, technology, qualified human resources or general resources, we have largely made up for in spirit. From its inception, journalism in East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – has been totally immersed and dedicated to our struggles for our rights to language, culture, economy and social advancement. In fact, independent journalism, to the extent possible at the time, was “partisan” journalism entirely devoted to asserting the rights of Bengalis. And we were extremely proud of this partisanship. It meant our very survival as a people.

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Obviously, a new chapter in the history of our journalism began with the birth of Bangladesh. But before it crystallized, a most serious tragedy befell us.

With the assassination of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and the return of martial law and the military involvement in politics, which lasted until 1990, our journalism rightly returned to “combat mode.” For democracy and, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, for “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

It can be said that the real growth of journalism in Bangladesh, in its modern sense, began from 1991, with the restoration of democracy and the coming to power of elected representatives of the people, with parliament playing the constitutionally assigned role of hold executive power. branch to the account.

From 1991 to date, we have experienced a period of phenomenal media growth in quantitative terms of various newspapers, weeklies, TV channels, online platforms, etc. As for their overall quality, that’s another story.

As of September 30, 2021, 502 dailies and 348 weeklies were published from Dhaka alone, possibly the highest of any city in the world. In addition, 777 dailies and 347 weeklies are released in the rest of the country. Many newspapers should have meant many views, many news sources, and many people participating in the news flow from their respective social, economic and class perspectives. Whether, in Chairman Mao Zedong’s words, “a thousand flowers” actually bloomed or whether it is many plants producing the same “flowers” or similar “flowers” is a matter of record – and it is constitutes, in our opinion, the hidden story of the state of the media today in Bangladesh.

The advertising market is not as big as it can support such a huge print media industry, nor is there any government mechanism to support them. Individual owners are not financially stable enough to maintain their publications indefinitely. There is, however, the world of government advertising which has its own strengths and weaknesses, as well as the potential for bureaucratic and political manipulation.

The natural question that follows, which should be answered as transparently as possible, is: What’s the business case for so many newspapers? And there, the situation becomes murky. If it’s not the owners’ money, if it’s not government or private advertising, then how do these newspapers hold up? Many years ago, the Ministry of Information surveyed newspapers in Dhaka and found that many of them did not have an office of their own; they shared the space with others. Several of them had the same address, and many had no office at all. Here’s a clue to the hidden story I talked about above.

While the government has a mandatory salary board, its own findings have shown that with the exception of a handful of news houses, no one has paid official salaries or anything related to their staff. Yet it is repeated every few years and imposed on a few. Has this contributed in any way to the growth of quality journalism?

The situation of television media, which can reach up to half a century, is better in terms of staff salaries and investment. Their problem is to harvest enough publicity and reach their viewers on a subscription model, which is currently totally usurped by cable operators.

Some estimates put the number of our unregistered online news portals in the thousands. At present, there are 262 registered online news portals, including the websites of established newspapers.

There are also many private FM radio stations.

With such proliferation in terms of quantity, the question of the quality of our media remains serious, as mentioned earlier.

In my opinion, there is fundamental confusion about the role of the media in the minds of government, owners and within the industry itself, including among the upper echelons of media management.

As for government, we face the same obstacles, perhaps a little more severely, that the media face in all new democracies. After all, our struggle for democracy may have a long history, but our experience in practicing it, with the exception of the first years of liberation, is only 30 years old. Compared to the governments of mature democracies, the elected leaders of the new democracies, including our own, suffer from all kinds of insecurities and are extremely sensitive from all critical points of view, failing even to grasp from afar the logic of the critical as a governance clean-up process. With time and growing differences, opponents of these democracies begin to be seen as enemies. The media, which publish purely factual critical stories, are seen as part of “the enemy”, and as such treated with suspicion first, then with derision and finally with attempted erasure.

Even in those 30 years of continued democracy – with a two-year gap when an interim military-backed government was in operation – the current ruling party itself has been in power since January 2009, nearly 13 years in existence. bar. If we add their previous five-year stint in power, the Awami League ruled Bangladesh for 18 years out of the last 30 years of our democracy. Given such a long reign, can we expect a more sophisticated reaction to media criticism in the future?

As for the owners, with the exception of a few, most of them did not grasp the specialty of this industry. Unlike what they own other things, the fact that owning a media house is a different ball game is largely beyond their thinking. If the heart of every product is quality, the quality of a media product is ‘credibility’, which comes from objective coverage from government, all public and private institutions, the business community and all centers. power in general, including the media. owner’s own businesses. Singing undue praise to owners may appeal to them, but it erodes the credibility of the media, thus damaging the “quality” of the product, which in this case is the newspaper.

Many owners view the media as an advertising wing of their industrial empires and treat journalists as public relations people, hired for their self-glorification. Obviously, these owners do not view the “media” as an independent business. It is a subsidiary created to operate with the help of other companies, and was never designed to be self-sufficient. Therefore, its own media must, by definition, look out for the business interests of the rest of the businesses of the same owner, which at times includes disparaging a competitor.

Equally damaging is the confusion among journalists. Given our long tradition of journalism to support our just struggle for independence and our long involvement in overthrowing the military regime and autocracy, we have not learned to distinguish between ‘advocacy journalism’. And “objective” journalism. Here I would like to make a strong and clear distinction between the period 1975 to 1991 and 1991 to date.

In the early period, with the exception of the early years of Bangabandhu’s reign, journalism was devoted to the struggle against military rule. It was almost a continuation of his role during the Pakistani period. In this “fight” we were supporters of democracy, representative political leadership, responsible government and all kinds of freedoms. We were not an “objective” judge of the political parties that fought against the military, or evaluated the programs they proposed to replace them.

After the restoration of democracy, journalism necessarily had to move from “partisanship” to “objectivity”, judging each of our elected officials and the government they formed. They were to be tested on their performance and not on their intentions, no matter how noble and just. Regardless of our favorite political icon, our work ethic has compelled us to speak out against injustice, corruption, cronyism and political partisanship. Whereas previously patriotism meant fighting for democracy and against military rule, current patriotism meant unearthing bad governance, abuse of the law and the suppression of all freedoms, especially freedom of speech, which is at the heart of all other freedoms, whatever the leadership of the day.

In my opinion, as journalists, we have failed to grasp the core ethics of our own profession and dragged into it the old partisan mindset, thus hampering the growth of objective journalism that Bangladesh needs today. ‘hui. It is at the heart of our transition to developing country status from LDCs.

If no one else, we journalists have to understand it, internalize it and practice it. It is our patriotism today.

Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.


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