THE government published a gazette recently on the National Broadcast Policy-2014 despite widespread criticism. The criticism started after the cabinet's approval of the Policy. And the response is not limited only to the stakeholders -- experts on talk shows and general public in the social media are talking about the repressive intentions hidden in the clauses of the policy. It has become a popular issue, and there has been severe criticism similar to the responses to Information and Communication Technology (Amendment) Act, 2013 and Online Media policy (Draft), 2012.
Those policies and acts were initiated and formulated by the same government in its two consecutive regimes. In all cases, there are similarities in taking policy measures or enacting laws. The government shares the draft online and invites stakeholders and general public to add their views. The final outcome is considered to be repressive and against freedom of expression by the stakeholders and the public. There was only the opportunity for the public to see the draft but there was no mechanism to send feedback there.
However, stakeholders from industry got the chance to give input in the draft policy. But in the final draft it was seen that their views were largely ignored. The members of the primary draft committee are now saying that they wanted a policy, but not one of this type. According to them, it gives scope to the government to misuse the policy in the name of maintaining standard of news, programmes and advertisements.
The highlighting features of the approved policy are: military, civil and public information that may compromise state security can't be broadcast; anything demeaning armed forces, law enforcement agencies and government officials who can punish people for criminal offenses can't be broadcast; addresses of the head of the government and the state, health and weather messages must be broadcast properly; mutiny, chaos, violent incidents which may affect public interests can't be aired; dead bodies of murders, accidents and suicides can't be broadcast; ban on broadcasting anything that may hamper friendly relations with foreign countries; spirit of Liberation War must be upheld in news and programmes; respect should be shown to all religious sentiments; Liberation War and Language Movement can't be included in commercial advertisement; mandatory screening of advertisement about nutrient values of food and beverages.
If the published policy is implemented then we will not be able to know about some cases like the role of RAB in the seven murder case at Narayanganj (anything demeaning to the armed forces can't be broadcast), the tragic incident like BDR mutiny would not be aired at all (mutiny, chaos, violent incidents which may affect public interests can't be aired), the border killing by BSF, probably, would not be reported (ban on broadcasting anything that may hamper friendly relations with foreign countries). The policy states that a search committee will select members for the formation of a commission that will take care of the implementation of the policy. However, the policy does not give the outline of the commission and says nothing about who will be there in the search committee.
The broadcast industry has manifold problems. Undefined licensing policy must be the first problem, where political inclination with the government is the only criterion for getting license. Shutdown of a channel is another problem, which is done under political consideration. Under the BNP regime (2001-2006), the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) allocated broadcasting frequency to ten TV channels, of which six were shut down later by the AL-led government (2008-2013). The abundance of channels for a fixed and competitive advertising market has compelled broadcast hours to be cheaper. As a result, the news slots are sold to the advertisers, and programmes have become hard to watch because of long commercial breaks. However, the policy could not provide a clear guideline in licensing policy and it said nothing about the commercial/programme ratio in the prime time and non-prime time hours.
I would like to say that the way the policy has been formed is wrong. Also, there are misconceptions among the policymakers for which they cannot differentiate between media policy and law or code of conduct. A communication policy facilitates effective distribution of airwaves, ensures fare competition, protects audience's interests, looks after security and welfare issues of media personnel and encourages media plurality. It seems the government is concerned more about its own security, and wants a docile media community self-censoring themselves and less bothered about their freedom of expression. If the government had a plan of enacting a broadcast law, it was unnecessary to fix dos and don'ts at this stage. The policy could consist of broad guidelines upon which an independent commission would prepare clauses in detail, which in turn would become an act.
The approach of the policy is not supportive but controlling. We want a policy that ensures freedom of expression. But, unfortunately, this policy gives the government freedom for repression.
First Published: The Daily Star, 11 August, 2014.