“Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows,” wrote Winston Smith in his secret diary. The print, audio and visual media in Bangladesh arguably do not have that freedom.
There is a red line, arbitrarily set by governments past and present, often differing from case to case. If crossed, the criminalisation of defamation that exists in the law from the Stone Ages in Bangladesh, despite the UN’s condemnation of it, is used efficiently and ruthlessly.
The media cowering in fear of the powers that be is only half the story. Truth, an absolute defence against defamation charges, has ceased to be so since facts are of no consequence. Such is the age of yellow journalism, at the very least equally responsible as said powers for the depreciation of the value of facts.
The term itself dates back to the American Gilded Age, originating during the late nineteenth century circulation war between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. From them to Rupert Murdoch and those who seek to emulate him today – more than a few of whom inhabit the subcontinent – the transition to sensationalism for circulation, often at the expense of the truth, is almost complete.
This driven growth in the industry has seen the advent of biased reporting and tabloid journalism. Their notoriety is pronounced on a daily basis by the truth-bashing existence of Fox News is the US.
Shameful, distasteful recent reminders have been served up by the UK, in the shape of the Sun’s attack on mental patients that completely disregarded facts to cause alarm and sell papers, and the Daily Mail’s bigoted spread about Ed Miliband’s father.
The former, infamous for the Hillsborough lies, is no stranger to controversy, neither is the narrow-minded latter. The ability to shock and awe, the by-product of which is to alter perception, has seen a lack of equal representation in the media develop over the years.
Newsworthiness has given way to disproportionality and scandals. Those seeking to make headlines, as politicians are wont to do, are more interested in becoming the news than taking constructive action.
In Bangladesh too, the dissemination of information has been turned into a lucrative business, and like any good business, success is dictated by the bottom-line, not the truth, by the appeasement of the patrons, not the education of the masses.
The news and facts are commodities being traded. The quality of the manufacturing process and the manufactured goods determine profit and prosperity.
This has created an ill-conceived belief that the job at hand is not to inform the public, rather to steer its opinion by letting on to as little as possible.
The patrons and editors, in a country of a high number of illiterate and a higher number of uneducated, may overestimate the power of the media.
Moreover, people mostly read, watch and listen to what they agree with, what reaffirms their beliefs. A meagre handful can be swayed; fewer still are open-minded enough to respect the full spectrum of thoughts on a subject.
Is it worth it, then, for the media to continuously make up the truth? The arguments about survival and existence are put paid to by the fact that doing so panders to the establishment’s wish to control the populace.
For all their yellow journalism, Pulitzer and Hearst invested heavily on weekend publications, which inadvertently saw major strides being made on the weekly and monthly magazines front. The media had also been unleashed on the authorities, to uncover corruption and inefficiency.
The endless streams of talking heads agree that the end is nigh for Bangladeshi society, as it was in 1996, 2001 and 2006 to 2008.
It is time they started paying attention to solutions and facilitate their implementation, for a collective effort to, once and for all, hold the establishment to account. It has long been time that the mission statement of the media was one about informing, educating and civilising. Politicians are under no obligation to tell the truth, certainly not the whole truth. In fact, doing so is counter-productive for their purposes of attaining power.
News outlets and media institutions are exclusively owned by a select group of privileged citizens. They are, thus, at the mercy of, and providing a platform for the self-aggrandising, self-serving agendas of two distinguished assemblies.
Unless values, integrity and a respect for the truth are restored within the media world, ignorance will indeed be strength for the average man.