The ideal approach could be formation of an independent National Broadcasting Commission (NBC) that would examine the existing laws and policies first and then chalk out a media governance plan. Instead, we have a new law on the table to talk about – the Broadcasting Act, 2016, indemnifying the minister, commission officials, consultants and other government official for its actions. Besides, this latest Act has provisions of sentencing someone to seven years of imprisonment, and imposing a hefty fine of Tk. 1 crore. Since the introduction of a draft National Broadcasting Policy (NBP) in 2011, stakeholders, experts and rights activists have demanded the formation of the NBC. Instead of forming the commission, the broadcasting policy was officially gazetted in August 2014. The best part of the policy is that it officially acknowledged the need for a commission and proposed its structure. Other than this, it failed to address the governance challenges in the media sector. It tabled the idea of a licensing authority designated by the government. The commission would then recommend issuing a broadcasting licence to the government. In the face of strong criticism against these provisions, the Information Minister assured that a commission would be in place within six months which is yet to happen.
Indeed a legal framework is a prerequisite to forming a commission, but it would be good to keep it focused on the formation of the commission, its scope or work, status and accountability mechanism. In this respect, the draft Act could be called the National Broadcasting Commission Act, 2016. These things are either missing or unclear in the proposed Act. The government is also working with the National Online Mass Media Policy (NOMMP) which is quite similar to the NBP 2014. Like the NBP, this policy evoked sharp criticism as it attempted to limit the freedom of the press. Neither of the policies contain any media friendly provision, rather it has tabled quite a few ‘don’ts’. There are some ambiguities regarding the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Information, Press Council, Press Information Department and the proposed Commission. Both the NBP and NOMMP contain the idea of a broadcasting commission, making it only a recommending entity and accountable to the government. The term ‘broadcasting’ in general terms indicates radio and television. But the draft Act includes ‘internet’, among other media. It can be assumed that online versions of print newspapers, their video and audio urls will also be under the jurisdiction of the NBC. At present the office of the Additional District Magistrate is the registration authority of newspapers. The ADM’s office issues declaration under the Printing Presses and Publication (Registration and Declaration) Act, 1973. On the other hand, the Bangladesh Press Council (BPC) was established in 1979 under the Press Council Act, 1974, with a view to protect freedom of the press and protect individuals and institutions from excesses by media persons. The Act made BPC a quasi-judicial body with the authority to decide complaints made against newspapers or news agencies under Section 12 of the same Act. Its Press Appellate Board disposes of the appeal filed against cancellation of declaration under Section 9 and 20 respectively of the Printing Press and Publishing (Declaration and Registration) Act, 1973. Surprisingly, BPC holds no power to issue or cancel declaration.
But this is not all; all of a sudden the Press Information Department (PID), the role of which has so far been limited to outreach, campaign and issuance of government notifications, asked all the online media to apply for registration last year. The deadline was later extended till January 31, 2016. The entire media industry was unclear about the process. PID’s authority and mandate to ask for such registration was highly questionable. Many viewed this as a step to strengthen the government’s control over media.
Here comes the biggest ambiguity – the ADM’s office will issue and cancel a declaration, the BPC will hear any appeal while the PID will look after the registration of online media, and some government designated agency will issue the broadcasting license. Perhaps the leftovers (if there is any) will be carried out by NBC. Isn’t this pretty confusing? This is not all, we have a number of acts, policies and laws including the Community Radio Installation, Transmission and Operation Guideline-2008, Bangladesh Information Security Policy Guideline 2013, National Broadcasting Policy 2014, Information and Communication Technology (Amendment) Act 2013, draft Cyber security Act 2015, The Censorship of Films Act-1963, etc. that are directly or indirectly related to print, electronic and online media. In this backdrop, any attempt to control the media through the proposed Broadcasting Act, 2016, should be prevented and attention should only be on the formation and operation of the long awaited NBC.
Like any other sector, the media sector also needs governance. Print and electronic media should be operated under existing laws and policies, for instance, online versions of print media should also be regulated by the Printing Presses and Publication (Registration and Declaration) Act 1973. If it does address the digital issues, then it should be amended to make it relevant. Licence of broadcasting and license of satellite television broadcasting and FM radio/community radio broadcasting are given from the Ministry of Information (MoI) to broadcast news and to make and export the video programme/film to establish and operate radio stations under private ownership. Therefore, before doing anything new, the government should establish an independent broadcasting commission first that would examine existing laws and policies and recommend necessary amendments. Furthermore, it may also propose ideal roles, responsibilities, mandate and status of MoI, BPC, NBC, PID and other relevant government entities. If not done carefully, it will only increase the existing ambiguity and create dual authority over the media.
To conclude, we haven’t been able to do much to ensure press freedom in recent years. This has been reflected in different international studies, including Reporter’s Sans Frontieres’s Press Freedom Index 2016 where Bangladesh ranked 144th position among 180 countries. Although Bangladesh has moved two notches up RSF states, journalists and bloggers who “reject censorship and self-censorship, risk life imprisonment or even the death penalty” (Reporters Sans Frontiers). Those deemed too secular are also the target of Islamist groups. Freedom of the Press Index 2016 by Freedom House was also similar, demoting Bangladesh’s media as ‘not free’ from its previous ‘partly free’ status. In this backdrop, it is advisable that the government will be sincere this time about establishing the much awaited independent National Broadcasting Commission which is free from government influence and will not stunt media freedom with any other instrument.
This was originally published in the Daily Star on 3 May 2016
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