Bangladeshi politics and media: Strange bedfellows?
0 comments | by Afsan Chowdhury
Bangladesh is well known for a flourishing media, rights violations of journalists and political activism rather than excellence. Media workers imagine themselves more as human rights and political activists than professionals. Many see themselves as frontline workers in the struggle to establish freedom and democracy. Often such pursuits follow the party lines of the two major players in Bangladesh.
This attitude and practice have damaged media as a whole because hyper politicisation has diminished credibility and many see the media as an extension of the two principle political parties. Politicians in general are seen by many as advantage-seekers and, by attaching so closely with them, the media is not seen as any different. Media has become its own foe.
Media’s confused role
Media has long been viewed as fundamentally a reporter on social and public governance issues but when it entered the nationalist phase before 1971, being partisan was considered patriotic. Hence, subjectivity became halal. The experiences of the 1971 war further enhanced this view as the Pakistan army and its local allies killed journalists in a planned manner as political enemies. The result was reinforcement of the role of media as a political rather than an information-processing construct. That tradition has lived on and has strengthened over time.
Media in Bangladesh is not seen as a mediator and informer but a political player and guardian or seeker of ‘democracy’. In Bangladesh, the vote banks believe that only their respective supporting party is capable of ‘democracy’ and the other is the ‘enemy’ of the same. So, democracy is seen as a party product and not wedded to public governance. The result is the justification of being partisan. The loser is the public who are further pushed into a partisan space since what they receive from the media in terms of information is the sum total of a society’s prime information source which is tilted and biased.
Media’s internal structure encourages party politics
Media’s own internal structure also plays a major role in encouraging this system. Media operates at three levels: 1) owners/editors; 2) trade union leaders and 3) workers. Except for the last, the first two are linked to one party or the other and this is reflected in their work as well. The result is a negative environment for objective media.
Meanwhile, the government through many channels and routes also keeps the pressure on media. Since favours are often exchanged, media and the powers that be become partners. This serves politics but not media’s interest.
As reporting quality has not improved and media itself has created a market for subjective content and politicking, two new elements have emerged. These are columns and talk shows. Basically, a form of providing personal or partisan opinion to support a cause, they have become greatly popular. The reasons are obvious. More often than not, they are stand in as proxies for the Aawami League-BNP fight. Even talk show guests are selected accordingly so that chili-pepper curry will be served to the audience along party lines. This isn’t designed to enlighten but instigate. They are avidly watched but also make a remark on the nature of media as it exists now.
Alternative media based on hate reports
The other element is the rise of alternative media, which are social media-based. Most of them are beamed from abroad and hence follow no rules, ethics or taste. In some ways, these media outlets are a reflection of the extremist views that exist on both sides of the political divide. Such views are, however, quite popular and though they may be very unprofessional media products at times, the pull factor—hate and abuse—is common to all of them.
Such views, which are popular and apparently come with economic tags, are dramatically increasing content availability. They do so, knowing that the hate market is expanding every day.
What ails, however, is politics and not media as it is expected to be an independent observer. But media owners and trade unionists, who are basically party loyalists, have contributed to shrinking this space. Media is about the people who work there or own it. So, the character of media is set by the people who are part of it and is not some abstract concept. And many of these people have made a choice to be more politically involved, making media identity-based and as playing an information-facilitating role less significant than the party programmes.
Corrosive politics, corrosive media
The problem, as it stands today, is that politics is corrosive. This may happen, but the problem is that media has chosen to be closer to that political architecture than the people’s right to information. In such an environment, media is increasingly becoming less about media and more about politics. In this role-processing, there are no winners and over time professional media will have to keep pace with the alternative media because more are peddling the same content called hate in most media space.