Column by Mahfuz Anam: New assault on the freedom of the press and expression
How unfortunate. There is a new assault on the freedom of the press. This time, sadly, it comes from another section of the mass media itself – the television. It has been an age-old practice – almost like an article of faith – that the media stands together. Its organisations support each other against those who try to restrict, throttle, and ban independent journalism. We now see some television channel owners trying to debilitate another part of the media – the newspapers. The Association of Television Channel Owners (ATCO) has appealed to the information ministry that the broadcasting of video programmes and multimedia content by newspapers be banned.
What ATCO is demanding will greatly harm the newspaper industry and is likely to jeopardise the latter's future, for there is no way newspapers can survive without their digital presence.
The world has changed, and the media sphere much more so. Today, newspaper readers demand updated news the very instant that it happens. They want explainers, backgrounders and also on-the-spot coverage. They not only want to read their favourite reporters or columnists, they also want to listen to them, see them, and interact with them – which is only possible through the internet and in multimedia format.
Every newspaper worth its name has 24/7 online and multimedia coverage of events. The New York Times offers special audio-visual coverage of the Ukraine war along with CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC and hundreds of other TV channels. American newspapers covered the US' recent shooting deaths in print and video formats, alongside TV channels. Take the recent fire at the container terminal in Sitakunda upazila of Chattogram. We all covered it in multiple formats – the TV channels had their written reports uploaded online as we, the newspapers, provided both written and video coverage of the event. Nowhere in the world has any broadcaster complained about newspapers offering video coverage.
Take any important newspaper in Europe, Japan, Asia or Southeast Asia – the picture is the same. The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Hindu, The Telegraph of India, Dawn of Pakistan, The Bangkok Post of Thailand, The Jakarta Post of Indonesia, The Star of Malaysia – and I can go on and on – each of these renowned newspapers has a highly efficient and vibrant audio-visual digital presence. So, why this demand by ATCO? Will it not force Bangladesh to fall behind the rest of Asia and the world in terms of print media?
Is it ATCO's view that they are losing viewership due to newspapers running videos? No. They are losing their viewers to Indian channels, especially the Bangla ones. Our TV channels have known this for years and have done very little to fight the competition.
When ATCO demanded "clean feed," we supported their cause because it concerned their business and we realised that our TV channels needed to earn profit. But now they are striking against newspapers' "contents" which makes it an issue of press freedom and freedom of expression. It hits out at the constitutional rights of the press and the people.
ATCO says that newspaper videos are against the paper's declaration – the initial permission to bring out a newspaper. These "declarations" pre-date the digital age and hence need to be changed to serve the future interest of Bangladesh – along with many other laws that were drafted ages ago. As a progressive country, we must change the laws to suit the digital era.
ATCO's position on what is allowable under the online registration policy is based on a flawed interpretation. As we understand it, acquiring separate registration for online versions allows newspapers to have news and multimedia contents. A serious reading of the policy clearly shows that newspapers, with special registration for their online versions, are allowed to produce video content.
There is also the urgent need for diversification. Every industry is diversifying and bringing out new products (for us, it is multimedia content) both to keep their present consumers (for us, readers) and to attract new ones.
Even social sectors are diversifying. Much of today's education is imparted through online classes and videos. Was this foreseen when we admitted our children to schools, colleges, universities, etc? As parents, did we know or agree to the fact that our children will be taking lessons virtually and not in a face-to-face classroom setting? We have all adapted to new methods and technologies due to changing times and made use of the opportunities that these are providing. Did our higher judiciary ever know that they would be holding virtual courts, or that doctors would be prescribing treatment and medicines without physically examining patients? Even our prime minister is carrying out the business of government through video conferencing. She is presiding over some of the most crucial decisions of the state virtually. This is what intelligent leadership and progressive societies do to keep abreast of change and innovation. ATCO's position is totally contrary to this truth.
Futurists predict that the technological changes – especially artificial intelligence, biotechnology, quantum physics, super-computers, space exploration, etc – will completely dwarf the innovations we have seen so far. We can't even imagine what the future will be like. So, are we going to face the ever-evolving future world of incomprehensible changes, possibilities and opportunities with outdated mindsets and laws, and concepts and ideas that were conceived in a totally different era?
The media's operations and business models stand transformed by the digital revolutions witnessed so far. Future innovations will impact it even further. This is true for all media, especially for print. Print media has to innovate and find newer ways to serve its readers, whose taste, preferences, values, and patterns of time utilisation have dramatically changed. They want to read newer things, different things, and in multiple formats. Many people, instead of reading books, prefer to listen to them. This has led to audiobooks being recorded. Many of our readers prefer to listen to news instead of reading it. So, we have podcasts along with printed news.
Newspapers of the future – some are already there – will have to become news platforms instead of just papers, and reach their readers in multiple ways – print, online, mobile phones, podcasts, and multimedia. This is the future which we must embrace if we are to survive.
We appeal to our minister, Hasan Mahmud, that as the minister for the whole sector he should not be swayed by TV only. He must think of the interests of radio, online media and, of course, the print media, in formulating his polices.
ATCO's demand must be opposed because it is against Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's aim of building a "Digital Bangladesh." It must be opposed because it is anti-progress, anti-future, and against the interests of Bangladesh's print media.
Mahfuz Anam is the editor and publisher of The Daily Star.