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Free press renders invaluable services to the society

31 October 2021
Free press renders invaluable services to the society

Mostafa Kamal Majumder :
It has become a fashion to generally view free press as antagonistic to the government of the day or the administration. But a close look will reveal that the administration immensely benefits from the services of the free news media, in print and electronic.
The news media give people the first information about what's going on around and a modern man cannot think of life without those because otherwise he remains detached from day-to-day developments at home and abroad.
How life without services of the news media is can be experienced in remote places or dense forests, not covered by those. Former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan (1997 to 2006) who along with the United Nations was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize for Peace tried this along with his wife. After ending his last term as UN SG in 2006 the ex-Ghanaian diplomat and his wife decided to lead life away from the hustles and bustles of the society by remaining inside a forest. Narrating their experience he said their dream lasted only a week after which their enthusiasm to remain detached from the taxing cob-web of connected life exhausted and they returned to the society which is sustained by the flow of information at interpersonal, group and mass levels facilitated by the ultra modern information and communication technology (ICT). Kofi Annan shared this at an editors' conference held before the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference of December 2009.
Coming back to services rendered to the society by the news media, a standard daily newspaper or a good television centre or a radio station efficiently serves so much of unbiased and reliable national and international news that surprises many. An eminent  American journalist said the entire administrative network and all the intelligence services of the government taken together cannot compile so much of credible information on a daily basis.
The reports and comments published in the news media are not considered legal documents and do not carry the force of law. Yet some reports and opinion pieces published in the news media are so much important that the government of the day has to come up with immediate response.
A standard news media outlet always strives to be objective in the publication of news and analytical stories due to the sheer need to be credible and remain in circulation. No news media can stay in circulation by publishing biased or unreliable information unless they don't have to rely on reader-support for revenue generation by attracting advertisements.
Yes, the government has its apparatus to gather information about events or occurrences through its administrative network or intelligence agencies. The difference between their reports and those of the news media is that the later do cross-checking of information by talking to multiple sources covering all sides of a story. The difference will be better understood if one keeps in mind the fact that the news media has to sell the story in a competitive

market. Government reports need not pass these tests and need not be published hurriedly to keep the inquisitive readers informed.
In other words, news media organisations present complete and unbiased accounts of all possible news events or processes in a society at a certain deadline and thus turn into mirrors of the society. All government departments, development agencies, local or foreign, rely in clippings of the news media for updated information on relevant subjects. Similarly all human rights organisations all over the world monitor HR situation in different countries relying on clips of newspaper and media reports. The same is the case with international financiers and development agencies. They prepare their reports based on news clips to indicate the periodic trends in respective fields.
Environmental activists' groups and lawyers moving Public Interest Litigation cases with higher courts collect their basic information from the press and the media. The founder of the Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers' Association (BELA), Dr. Mohuiddin Farooque used to acknowledge this without any hesitation. The press and the media are also the vehicles for circulation among the people of news of their PIL cases filed with the High Court.
 The press and the media keep the administration on track through scrutiny of their activities, check against infringement of human rights and democracy, and by critically reviewing development activities promote economic and social progress.
 They uphold the people's right to freedom of expression by airing their ideas and views on various issues, things plus reactions to those and help make the society lively and vibrant. The news media also performs an advocacy function to promote social and economic changes for development.
 Innovations, new ideas and things relating to health and different aspects of life are brought to the notice of the people by the press and the media creating awareness leading to their adoption in the day to day life through supportive exchange of messages at interpersonal and group levels.
Generally speaking, the society takes time to accept new things or ideas because people first want to be sure about their beneficial effects. The press and the media help create positive knowledge and attitude about those among the people. Subsequently their acceptance is ensured through field level activities.

In respect of pandemics like Covid-19 and HIV-AIDS the initial reactions among the masses have always been repulsive. Take the case of Covid-19; the people at the beginning had so much of fear, misgivings, prejudices and superstitions about corona infected people that many tragic incidents happened in our society. Among those was the case of a middle aged man who developed Covid-19 symptoms and was locked up at his village home by his wife who left the place with their children. The man died a tragic lonely death.
 In the early days of the pandemic in Bangladesh many people who took their near ones to hospitals for Covid-19 treatment did not turn up later to enquire about their health or take back the bodies of the unfortunate ones. In one extreme case in the early days of the pandemic people residing near a graveyard in capital Dhaka put up a big banner message urging the government not to bury bodies of Covid-19 victims there. In the Tejgaon Industrial area the setting up of a Covid-19 hospital at the initiative of the Akij Group and Gonoshasthya Kendra was violently stopped by people living in the neighbourhood because they said it would be harmful to them.
Now after 18 months the situation has changed. Thanks to the news media for airing repeated news items against the misgivings, unfounded fear and biases against Covid-infected persons. People now not only care for Covid patients but also take part in funerals of those who die of the disease.
 Similar prejudices existed in our society against AIDS patients in the early nineties of the last century as the first cases of the syndrome started surfacing. When two HIV cases, deported from abroad, went to their homes at a village in the Sylhet region, people wanted to burn them alive. A pond where they bathed was abandoned out of the fear that anybody coming into touch with the water might contract AIDS. It took years of systematic campaigns through the news media to bring changes to people's attitude to the disease and the persons infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS. Now thousands of HIV-infected persons and AIDS patients live peacefully in the society taking the medical treatment they need.
 But what's the state of the news media in the country now. While the Digital Security Act (DSA) and the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Act are being randomly used against journalists deterring their freedom, localised influential people and their hired men are attacking them at intervals to stop them from writing investigative stories on property grabbing, irregularities and corruption.
 The worst thing is that non-bail able cases can be filed under these Acts with police stations by        anybody for alleged defamation or hurting religious sentiment of people. There are also incidents of people being picked up without notice by law enforcers and subsequently being shown arrested in cases under the DSA.     
 The latest and most glaring example of journalist repression was at the Bangladesh Secretariat, the bureaucratic headquarter of the government, when senior reporter Rozina Islam of Prothom Alo was detained by officials at the Health Ministry and later a case was filed against her under the Official Secrets Act. It was unthinkable that a women journalist can be confined to a room at the ministry and harassed for exercising her right to freedom of journalism. After five hours of detention at the ministry on 17th May last Rozina Islam was taken to the Shahbagh Police Station in the evening and charged with stealing secret official documents. The court granted her bail but she now has to fight the unexpected case. She did produce a number of investigative reports on irregularities in dealing with the Covid-19 situation.   
 Another thing is that except a few newspapers, television channels and radio stations, almost all such media outlets are financially insolvent. Journalists working for those are ill paid. This economic pressure works against freedom of the press and the media. On the top of this handicap the media workers are divided politically into two camps. The 'fourth estate' in Bangladesh is now also being heavily influenced by corporate entities many of which have ventured into the news media publication industry. Rivalries between some business houses are sometimes reflected through news media outlets they own and operate.     
 Despite all these odds journalists and news media organisations in the country are exercising the people's right to freedom of opinion and expression through their bold journalism. And in the process they through their watchdog and advocacy functions are giving the society and the state invaluable services.
Speaker of Bangladesh Parliament, Dr. Shirin Sharmin Chowhury, has the other day described the news media as the fourth pillar of democracy. She obviously has in mind the executive, the legislature and the judiciary as the first three pillars. Her view reflects the American interpretation of the term - fourth estate.
In Europe, United Kingdom to be more specific, where the term was first used - the first three pillars were referred to as - Lords Spiritual, Lords Temporal, and Commons. This reflects the evolution of the democratic state from mediaeval kingdoms where kings used to claim divine right to power. Over the centuries 'divine' monarchs have turned into titular heads of state and elected parliaments the real centres of power. The United States on the other hand has from the very beginning a modern constitution that has drawn heavily on French philosopher Montesquieu's theory of separation of powers.
In any case, the interpretation of the term - fourth estate - is similar in all democracies today. If it is the fourth pillar of democracy, it's an informal pillar having no force of law. Yet it is so influential that its role is recognised by all including the first three pillars of the state. In Western democracies people believe the fourth estate is now playing a dominating role, a role which they gladly admire. The fourth estate in Bangladesh needs nursing. Still journalists and their news organisations are giving brave fights to safeguard their freedom to serve objective news and are inspiring others.     

(A senior journalist Mostafa Kamal Majumder is the editor in-charge of The New Nation.)

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