Mostafa Kamal Majumder
A young journalist colleague told me the other day he would make no mistake in aligning himself with either of the two major political parties in Bangladesh because he has seen and is by now ‘sure that there is no future for one in the profession who wants to remain content only with journalistic objectivity, judgment, impartiality, integrity and honesty’.He continued, ‘You have built your career in a different environment when political allegiance was not the only yardstick to judge your competence and credibility. But time is different now.’
Before I intervened he at one stretch said, ‘I am yet to get married, need financial stability to have family life and cannot risk unemployment for the sake of journalistic freedom. I will commit no mistake.’
If one juxtaposes the above statement with another statement made by a leading member of the present ruling party at the fag end of the last Awami League government in 2001, one would be taken aback. After nearly completing five years as a minister she said, ‘journalists come to us and identify themselves as our workers. We tell them we need no more workers because we have plenty of them. What we need is ‘journalists’.
I knew she spoke candidly, because she might have had become tired of dealing with journalists trying to get closer on grounds of political affiliation. However, the disliking for journalists who prefer to be known more for political identity than competence and standing in the profession was against the tide created by the political parties who ascended to the tentacles of power alternatively since the restoration of democracy in 1991.
There is nothing bad in journalists subscribing to any political ideology, as in the words of a legend in the profession of journalism in Bangladesh Shahidul Huq, ‘you cannot have good poltical stories from a reporter who does not have a political commitment’. But he used the word commitment not to mean political activism. A professional reporter’s activism can only be in journalism. Political commitment sharpens one’s eyes and enables one to keenly follow, narrate and analyse political trends and developments correctly. An editor would never allow a reporter turn his paper into a political leaflet. Journalists are trained to draw the line between their political ideas and the realities of the day, and what they would serve as news.
Newcomers to the profession in Bangladesh know for sure their job, promotion and above all stability in life depend on subscribing to or expressing support for the political ideology the owners of papers or media profess or are aligned with.
There is no harm even in news or media organizations giving tacit to support a political ideology, party or organization. This is observed even in developed democracies like the United Kingdom or the United States, but such support never crosses journalistic principles and decorum. A credible news organisation does this without jeopardizing its readership base which without exception comes from a diverse background. In other words, news or media organisations are primarily dependent on readership support from masses of people who cannot be taken for granted.
As conscience keepers of the society and the nation, news and media organisations always strive to help organise opinion towards the greatest national good. This can never be done by becoming openly partisan on every issue, event, idea or thing. Because the masses of people or the readers or viewers cannot be assembled at one place at a time to consult with and know of their choices, news and media organisations promote unity in diversity to keep their readers/viewers on board.
Under the given reality of there being two journalist unions in the country it has become difficult for young journalists to exist without directly showing allegiance to or participating in activities of the two. But even when there was the united journalist union, some journalists used to prefer avoiding direct participation in union activities. They used to remain busy more with the journalistic work of writing and editing rather than anything else but used to be respected by leaders of the two forums operating under the same union.
The growth and development of unions on political lines has unfortunately led to some adverse effects on the profession. Unionists and active journalists were in the past viewed as people of two species under the same genre – journalist. In news organisations active journalists used to get the important journalistic positions while unionists used to represent the organisations in the central union and contest elections to take its important positions. Editors used to exert exalted positions of influence not only in their news organizations but also in the society at large.
That situation has changed now. Journalist union leaders have overtime come forward to claim any position that becomes available as spoil at intervals of change of political regimes because of their nearness to and active relationships with political leaders. After all, they are the people who are available at adverse times to voice demands of party leaders by staging human chains, sit-in demonstration, rallies and assemblies.
With the empowerment of the union leaders to oversee implementation of Journalists’ and Employees’ Wage Board Awards since the time of the last caretaker government, the weight and edge of the positions of editors have been seriously eroded. This is in addition to the deterioration of the declining atmosphere of journalistic freedom as most news and media organisations are more concerned with their business or political agenda. Those with social agenda have simply disappeared. On the one hand the traditional publishing houses have generally failed to cope with the rapid changes in media environment brought by the democratic transformation of 1991, the disappearance of trust-owned newspapers have put the last nail on the coffin of news organizations with social agenda.
Trust owned newspapers used to give space to all shades of opinion although they used to predominantly highlight pro-government news and views of the day. News organizations under social ownership had in the past, and still continue to have, strong influences on media environment in strong democracies like the United Kingdom and The United States. In Bangladesh trust-owned newspapers used to hold a balance between politically oriented news and media organizations before their closure in the second half of nineties of the last century. Bangladesh boasts of having democracy but press trust properties remain under total state control housing government offices for the last two decades.
Press and media freedom is a must for the greater interest of all concerned. Political leaders of Bangladesh have to understand this, because every time after defeat in election and loss of power, when there remains no formal channel open to air their views or grievances, they came to news and media organisations to rely on as the last resort. This is true also for government and private officials who believe they have been unjustly dealt with and do not find any other inexpensive channel to tell their sides of stories. Is it not, therefore, a national duty of all concerned in their best individual and collective interests to restore the news organisations under common ownership and recreate the environment for them to function again with a fair measure of freedom. When this will be done the socially-oriented news organizations will once again maintain the critical balance in extremely polarised press and media trends. Young journalists then will not have to rely on patronage at the cost of the values of their profession. Their commitment to objectivity will only then again become the most important criteria for employment and promotion.
(A journalist, writer and researcher of international repute, the author has been an editor of national newspapers for the last 13 years)