THE media in Bangladesh by and large free in Bangladesh. But it can be easily held under duress. Private broadcasters are of the opinion that if the independence of public broadcasters is guaranteed they would also enjoy operating in a relaxed environment.
Last week people around the country watched daylong coverage of two events -- the arrest of two tyrants -- Shaekh Abdur Rahman and Siddiqul Islam Bangla Bhai -- on private television channels. Despite having all modern equipment and facilities, the state-run Bangladesh Television (BTV) failed to perform on this important occasion.
Television Journalism has gained immense popularity in Bangladesh these days. There is craze among youths to join the television journalism. The market although is still very small, a number of private institutions have been established to give training on TV reporting and news presentation. A number of private universities have also introduced courses on electronic media.
But the situation was not like this. Little more than five years ago there was no such thing as television journalism in Bangladesh. The state-owned national television channel had news bulletins, but those were dominated by footage covering ceremonial occasions of state and activities of the president, prime minister, the ministers and the ruling party leaders.
There were no television reporters, just a cameraman who used to record the events and play those on the news, while a presenter read wire copy from the state or semi-official news agency that had covered the same event. The situation for state owned BTV has not changed much.
A new dimension in the Bangladesh media began with the addition of broadcast journalism. In 1999 a terrestrial television network was given permission to operate and the company -- ''Ekushey -- gained huge popularity with in a short time. Real news reports from the field, narrated in Bangla on the Ekushey Television (ETV), was a stunning experience for the viewers. The ETV quickly acquired a large audience across the country and, at least for news, people had full dependence on ETV, not BTV.
But the sad episode for the Bangladesh media has been the closure of the Ekushey Television. A case was brought against the company by some citizens that their license was not given legally and accused them of wrongdoing. The higher courts did rule the license to be illegal and the ETV was closed down. The popularity of Ekushey was immense and a lot of people felt that their licensing loopholes were not a crime of commission but of omission.
Following years, two satellite networks were given permission to work as entertainment channels who were later allowed to broadcast news. Now four private channels presenting news and current affairs copying the popular ETV style. Two others are in the offing.
Proliferation of dishes provided private channels with a rapidly growing mass viewers. The most state controlled, the least professional media in Bangladesh, has suddenly refashioned in a satellite format, providing news reports more in accordance with international professional standards than any other form of media in the region.
Overall the media is free in Bangladesh. But it can be easily held under duress. The satellite channels are broadcasting news but their reach is not extended upto the interiors of Bangladesh. One of the ugliest forms of control is the mandatory broadcast of BTV news at 11.30 p.m. All private channels have to broadcast the one hour long bulletin of BTV live as this is one of the conditions given in the license. At first the government said it is necessary as BTV is not seen outside Bangladesh.
But now BTV has launched its own satellite channel named BTV World which is seen around the globe. Yet the private channels are compelled to broadcast government news.
It is perceived that the private TVs are also not totally free. The control is not visible. But the government and influential quarters do often try to impose decisions behave. A 2002 study revealed that the advertising market for electronics media here is of worth of Taka one billion annually. Of which ETV had 45 per cent, BTV 35 percent and Channel I and ATN Bangla shared the rest. The situation remains unchanged. Private TVs although do not have terrestrial facility have a share nearly 50 per cent of the ad market.
According to the report of the Committee on Autonomy of Betar and Television, the BTV's news is telecast in a set pattern and repetitive in nature, lacking in vitality.
So when the issue of media liberalisation comes, the first thing that comes up for discussion is granting of autonomy to Betar and BTV. This was one of the main demands in the joint declaration of the three alliances announced after the fall of Ershad. Although the work did not progress, both the past BNP and Awami League governments did form commissions to assess the matter. The recommendations of those commission reports never made public.
The government exerts a great deal of control over public broadcasters, using them as its mouthpiece rather than allowing then to work as independent sources of information for the public. All the governments attempted to devise mechanism to retain control over the electronic media directly or indirectly. The same way the government also has influence over the private broadcasters.
It is felt by the private broadcasters that if the independence of public broadcasters is guaranteed -- both in law and in practice -- they can truly operate in the greater public interest, providing high quality information from a variety of sources. This will also help private operators to operate their business in a more relaxed environment.