Are some online news portals legitimizing fake journalism?
No one will oppose the fact that the press, whether it is in print or online or on the television, should be governed by a competent and independent authority backed by policies and laws.
In a democracy, such institutions, laws, and policies tend to protect the freedom of the press so that it works as an integral part of good governance. This does necessarily imply a bitter relationship between the government and the press.
Rather, the press works as a tool of governance, one which identifies the flaws of different state institutions.
A list of dishonesty
Most recently, the cabinet approved the amendment of the draft National Online Media Policy, 2017 (Amendment 2020) in a bid to facilitate the registration of online versions of different print and electronic media. While the registration may seem necessary by the journalists and industry practitioners, quite a few things did not happen as per their expectations when this policy was formulated.
First and foremostly, the commission to regulate online media did not happen. For years, the bureaucracy has regulated the media and, when it comes to online media, the same is likely to happen -- in the absence of the commission, the Information Ministry would choose an authority until it is formed.
Just two days before the country went on holiday to celebrate Eid-ul-Azha, the government agency responsible for the governance of the news media industry published a list of 34 online news portals eligible for registration. A careful look into the list will surprise many as it left out almost all the established and trustworthy news portals, including those of the online versions of print newspapers and TV channels.
Out of these 34 online news portals, two do not even exist while the other two portals even show lewd content to attract web visitors. Another non-existent portal hurriedly updated the site with some plagiarized content and advertised the recruitment of online journalists throughout the country.
Except for very few exceptions, almost all news portals either plagiarize their content or serve baseless news and information. More importantly, visiting most of these sites can be deadly for a visitor as most of these sites do not transfer data in an encrypted way.
The government’s approval to these portals came at a time when the press and journalism in general in Bangladesh are fighting for survival in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. The sector is one of the worst-hit sectors as its revenue earnings have significantly gone down.
In this backdrop, this move will only make things worse. Despite stealing content, these portals have been cleared after an investigation.
How did this happen?
Anyone will agree that the credibility of a news media organization largely depends on the transparency and accountability of the news it publishes. It means that the organization has a known physical location and we know the people behind it.
Besides, a credible and responsible news organization always takes the responsibility of the news published. The online portals in question do not meet these criteria as most of them steal content from other, more credible sources. Therefore, such unreliable news portals and so-called journalists can cause lasting harm to a country and its people by publishing fake or engineered news.
The government agency claimed to have followed a rigorous selection process involving an impartial investigation by another assigned agency. It is pertinent to mention that the registration process was initiated back in 2015. It took more than five years to investigate the authenticity of the online news portals that had applied for registration.
The list includes several portals with focus on different issues like women, energy, IT, and the stock market. Although these portals do not serve daily news, they have been dubbed news portals. It would be good to treat them in a different category.
However, three of these portals plagiarize content to a great extent. They copy almost the entirety of their content from established news portals, particularly from those of print newspapers.
According to the list, some of the owners seem to be politically aligned individuals, including a lawmaker.
A questionable process
The most embarrassing part of the list is that it contains names of portals which serve lewd content. Needless to say, these too have plagiarized content. At a time when the government has taken stern steps against virtual lewd content and copyright infringement, giving registration approval to such portals makes the enlisting process quite questionable.
A majority of the news portals either have a different address or different editor or publisher from that of the mentioned ones in the approved list. Some do not even contain any address or name of the editor.
Although there are no set criteria, any news portal or newspaper ideally should contain a known address and names of the editor and publisher. Besides, the content should, at the very least, be their own.
Otherwise, it is nothing more than a denial of the principles of journalism, including truth, accuracy, fairness, impartiality, and accountability.
Plagiarism, in other words, infringement of copyright, is a criminal offence under the Copyright Act 2000. To hide this crime, these portals publish news under the title “special report” or “desk report” or mention “staff reporter.” How come the first list contains names of news portals that infringe copyright laws?
Was it so difficult to find out that most of the news portals copy content from well-established newspapers and portals? What took the agency more than five years to investigate their credentials? Why are there are only three credible news portals in the list and why have the others been excluded?
Only the government agencies and individuals involved in the process can answer these questions. The government circular, however, clarifies that registration of online news portals is an ongoing process and that it has given permission only to those which have been cleared by the government-assigned agency.
Was there an investigation at all?
Other online news portals will get the permission as soon as their names are cleared. As we can see the level of inefficiency in performing this critically important job, a question can genuinely be raised of whether there was any investigation at all.
By giving permission to these so-called online news portals, we now have to fight a new enemy -- fake journalism. When the media industry is fighting against the odds, struggling through the Covid-19 pandemic and fighting for its survival, this move will only make things worse.
Proposing a commission to regulate a certain sector is nothing new. In 2014, the government formulated the National Broadcasting Policy to regulate the broadcasting media. The policy also proposed the formation of a National Broadcasting Commission, which never happened.
Like the National Online Mass Media Policy of 2017, this policy discarded all the recommendations of all the stake-holders, including journalists. Instead of strengthening the existing institutions like the Bangladesh Press Council, such policies have always advocated for commissions which would take years or perhaps a decade to form.
But forming such commissions will not solve the problem. Rather, the media and the press will find yet another institution in addition to the existing ones -- the Ministry of Information, the Press Information Department, the Press Council, the Office of the Deputy Commissioner, and Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission.
No other industry in Bangladesh is governed by so many state institutions, laws, and policies. In addition to these, the bureaucracy has tried to distance itself from the press through legal instruments like the Official Secrets Act and supportive rules of business that limit the free flow of information.
Most recently, the Ministry of Public Administration issued an office order directing all the government offices to instruct their officials not to engage with media in any form without prior approval from a superior.
Such embargo will not bring any good to the country. Instead, it will create more scope for the spread of misinformation.
The government must not mistake misinformation for journalism. It must support the free flow of truth. They must create a mechanism to track fake content and act against the perpetrators instead of promoting them.
The press cannot fight the spread of misinformation without active support from the government. In doing so, the government must support the press.
Inefficiency, nepotism, and corruption gave birth to demons like JKG and Regent. I hope we will not do the same in the guise of “governing” the press. The approval of these 34 online news portals indicates a wide gap in the governance of the entire press industry.
Mere policies and institutions will not solve the existing problem. Instead of bureaucracy-led reform initiatives, the industry should be governed by a mixture of experts and true practitioners of press freedom and freedom of expression.
Although the aims and objectives of the National Online Mass Media Policy are very promising, it mostly spells out the “don’ts” for the online press. Same goes for the National Broadcasting Policy, 2014.
The press -- be it print, electronic, or online -- should be governed by an independent and powerful institution which will regulate everything about the press: Protect freedom of the press and advise the government on policy reforms. The Bangladesh Press Council can be transformed into such an independent institution.
In a democracy, the press works as an independent governance arm for the government. As such, the press has to be free from any kind of influence from the government.
Sadly, the opposite is happening. In recent months, the press has unearthed several financial scams as well as unprecedented examples of corruption in the healthcare sector. The press has always been vocal against extrajudicial killings.
No one will deny the fact that if the press had remained silent on these issues, all these would have gone untouched and unpunished. Unfortunately, we see the same practice in the very industry they are a part of.
The political leadership must do better and act strongly for the best interest of press freedom and people’s access to true and fact-based information.
Meer Ahsan Habib is a communication for development professional. Email: [email protected]