Media freedom in times of change

rifaat newaz
Published : 30 Oct 2016, 01:00 PM
Updated : 30 Oct 2016, 01:00 PM

Of the many ideas that circulate in our media world, few are as confusing as the term "media freedom". After four decades in the sector and in all forms from print to online, I tend to think that the concept itself is not a concrete one but relative to time and context. The notion goes through many transitions and every socio-economic situation offers new interpretations that some will agree with and some won't. Perhaps, in the end, it's a subjective matter but that is tested with objective conditions and functional realities.

Media freedom operates at several levels but three roles are critical. 1. The Owner. 2. The Editor. 3. The journalist. Each has their own space and freedom to relate to but the nature of freedom is different for each and should be looked at as three different but interlinked streams. They are supportive but conflicting ones as well. As a working journalist I believe the relationship between media workers and the media establishment should be positive but in constant "contradiction" as the media spaces they occupy are different and often in conflict. So the interest of the worker and that of the Owner or Editor is not the same. But both are needed to remain functioning.

In case of bdnews24.com with which I have been associated in various capacities, from editorial staff to contributor, the experience may serve as one example to learn from. I much prefer to be a working journalist than being an Editor. That means I need to recognize my limitations and my freedom as well. In that case, I accept that there are policy matters that belong to the media institution which by default means the Editor and I may agree or disagree with them but I must accept them if I am to remain associated. What then determines my terms of relationship? Since I have no political partisanship and subscribe to media freedom but under realistic conditions, it's one of freedom of intellectuality. Am I allowed to say what I want to say if they are logical arguments and facts? If so, that's the freedom I seek. Having worked in many outlets, I know almost no one gave me that whether in print or electronic media.

The first big test of "media freedom" at bdnews24.com was on the position regarding Prof. Yunus and micro-credit in a very politically hostile environment within Bangladesh. bdnews24.com covered the issue based on several other media products which were in my opinion one sided and limited and I wrote in saying so. Very soon it became a point of debate with others, often a harsh one. I felt that the position taken by anti-Grameen Bank /MC group was more political, often personal and a few plain ignorant. Having worked in the development sector for a long time and covered it as a development journalist, I knew my story, I felt. This included the role of micro-credit as a provider of inclusionary tools while the critics were looking only at it as a poverty exiting one.

So the good fight went on but I was not censored even once. I received a lot of mail from pro-Yunus people, particularly NRBs who asked me why I was writing for this netpaper which was so "opposed to Yunus and Grameen Bank".

My response was clear. I don't own the outlet nor the editorial chair nor am I in control of the public opinion making process. So the position of the outlet was not my concern. I am a working journalist and an op-ed writer. If the Editor doesn't shut me down, I am in the best possible space. I have to work so I should choose the best space. I was criticized for being an 'opportunist" because I was told I should work only for those places which were not anti- Grameen. I disagree. We are professional journalists and having worked almost everywhere I have been sliced and censored. (I can provide a list if needed) I have not had to face that at bdnews24.com and a select few. I stand by that statement.

My position on history writing and related matters of 1971 is very research based and no matter what, I think the word of the researcher alone has legitimacy on the topic. The executive, judiciary, legislature or even public opinion can't have the final word on this issue. When David Bergman was convicted for contempt of court by the WCT for challenging the issue of three million martyrs, I wrote a piece arguing that the matter was not an issue for the court but one over which only researchers had jurisdiction. bdnews24.com was at that time, very openly pro-Shahbagh and ICT.

An intense and even intolerant environment that prevailed everywhere so allowing such a piece was unusual to a high degree. The outlet itself had squarely put its weight behind the Shahbagh group, which considered such utterances akin to treason. My article drew a huge number of hate mail but I was not censored at all. Many asked how bdnews24.com allowed this, given its position but I said that I never faced any censorship and this always surprised everyone.

I should add that I also signed the petition condemning David Bergman's conviction and was later convicted for "contempt of court' by ICT 2. It was a fair trial and I felt that the ICT was right to conclude as it did. I however stand by my position that on matters of history only the historian's research maters, not anyone else's, and recently wrote a piece on the law forbidding anything negative on Sheikh Mujib and the history of 1971.

The last case I mention relates to my op-Ed on the admission of Daily Star Editor Mahfuz Anam that he had had printed material on the advice of the DGFI during the 2006-2008 regime of Moeenuddin-Fakhruddin. My position on this is also clear. The journalist's job is journalism, not political role playing. Khalas. One of the worst things that has happened to our media is the political partisanization in the name of trade unionism and I believe there are not too many active trade unionists who are also good journalists incidentally.

My position was attacked by many people who felt I had become a pro-AL partisan and defenders of Mahfuz bhai were very angry. That is okay because I believe that the Editor's role was transgressed by the Star Editor. Prof. Yunus also tried to float a party during the same period which failed, which is fine and can happen. But once that happens, the Banker and the Editor are no longer in that role but that of the partisan. And must accept what comes with that role transgression when times change. The present government has been harsh with them mostly unfairly but it's their political role that has enraged the powers that be, not developmental or media ones. If one becomes a politician, but later retreats back to the safety of the profession, the conflict doesn't disappear and consequence follows as the events show.

In this case I was closer to the position of bdnews24.com but that is accidental. And that is my point. My position is simple. Respect the boundaries of the profession and if you want to do politics, do so in that space. Media has not been well served by the politicization of the industry in the name of trade union or patriotism.

In summation, my experience is that I was never censored by bdnews24.com for anything I wrote. Once or twice I have been made moderate by my immediate editor for which I am thankful but I have written opinions almost in total contrast to the editorial position of the outlet. Many factors must have worked in deciding to grant me this freedom including my seniority but the fact remains that as far as my experience goes, I have had all the space I have needed in my association with bdnews24.com.

Afsan Chowdhury
is a journalist and researcher, Consulting Editor at bdnews24.com

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher