They pointed out that the social media are being used to spread religious extremism and hatred as well as to infringe on individual freedom.
UNESCO, Mass-line Media Centre (MMC) and ICS organised the seminar, ‘The State of Press Freedom in Bangladesh: Challenges and Way Forward’ at the CIRDAP auditorium on Tuesday to mark the World Press Freedom Day.
Stressing the importance of social media, Chief Information Commissioner Md Golam Rahman said, “Newspapers, radio and TV are mainstream media but they are now becoming traditional media.”
“Mass media is expanding fast and will keep growing. Social media or the new media is the new challenge,” he added.
At the UNESCO's initiative, similar seminars were held in over 100 countries on Tuesday with the main event being held in Finland.
Transparency International Bangladesh Chairperson Sultana Kamal also spoke at the seminar chaired by bdnews24.com Editor-in-Chief Toufique Imrose Khalidi.
Social media drew special attention of the speakers.
The keynote speaker, Dhaka University’s Television and Film Studies Department Chairman Prof Abu J M Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan, suggested legal amendments to control its misuse.
“We’re suggesting amendments to or the abolition of Section 57 of the ICT Act. But CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code) has to be amended to avert the likes of the Ramu incident.”
Reporters Without Borders representative Salim Samad, however, opposed any changes in the CrPC to control the social media.
Toufique Khalidi drew Salim’s attention to the use of Facebook to spread ‘false information’ about Hindus in Bangladesh and asked him to consider the ‘genuineness’ of such information.
Several other discussants confirmed having witnessed similar use of the social media.
Toufique Khalidi, the editor-in-chief of the country’s first internet newspaper, said the social media had widened the scope of expressing one’s opinion but he also highlighted the rise in the misuse of the widespread tool.
“There are no clear lines drawn, but with right-wing radicals trying to provoke people into violent response to a situation … we need to start serious discussions about a system of governance,” he said.
“When lunatics exercise their kind of freedom, the freedom we want to promote gets curtailed. We fear being targeted, assaulted, persecuted, prosecuted and even killed. Some of us do get killed,” he added.
The bdnews24.com editor-in-chief referred to an incident in the UK, in which a Facebook invite for people to get together in front of a fast food shop resulted in a four-year prison term for two young men.
The chief information commissioner, however, opined against the use of law alone to control such misuse.
“Who will control the social media? ... Control cannot be a system,” he said.
The former Dhaka University professor urged the social media users to be aware of its misuse.
Echoing his views, former UNDP official Kazi Ali Reza said, “How many more laws will we formulate? (We will simply have to) be educated.”
Sultana Kamal emphasised on ‘independent and responsible’ acts of individuals and State institutions for the protection of freedom of expression.
She felt that depending only on the government for everything was hardly a solution.
“I believe massive changes will come about if the institutions can carry out their responsibilities independently and we, the citizens, can play our role independently,” she said.
Senior journalist and columnist Syed Badrul Ahsan highlighted the issue of self-censorship of media outlets.
“We are talking about government censorship and about Section 57 (of the ICT Act). But we need to look at the self-censorship we go for,” he said.
Toufique Khalidi focused on the censorship by owners of media outlets and the influence of advertisers.
He said, “Censorship or attack on our freedom does not always come from the government or the State institutions. The corporate world is a major criminal here …
“A lot is done by big businesses or big spenders in advertising … corporate muscle tries to compete with our media muscle. More often than not, we lose in this battle.”
The bdnews24.com editor-in-chief suggested that the State keep an eye on the media but opposed government control over it.
Explaining his position, he said when the extreme right tries to create an extreme situation, the law will have to stretch its own hands to certain forms of media and certain kinds of ‘media’ activity.
“Sadly, the State only interferes when the government of the day perceives its own interests have been directly hit. The State doesn’t act when there’s an attack on the very fabric of a society, on the values that have for ages helped a society sustain itself as a peaceful environment,” he said.
Toufique Khalidi criticised the inclusion of a section in the Broadcast Policy to ‘protect the image’ of law-enforcement agencies and the armed forces.
Referring to information compiled by ASK, the seminar was told that 244 journalists were harassed in Bangladesh last year. One of them was murdered.