Uncritical media engagement

 Nurul Kabir    ২৮ ডিসেম্বর ২০১৮, শুক্রবার, ১২:৪৯    দেশ

WHILE election itself is not democracy, it remains the indispensable first step towards democratisation of the body politic of any country. Bangladesh, which is constitutionally said to be a ‘people’s republic’, is expected to be governed by the democratically elected representatives of the people, for the ‘sovereignty’ of a ‘republic’ is always vested with people while people exercise their sovereignty by no other agents of power except their elected representatives and that too under the dictates of the constitution of the state. It is, however, important to note that for a state to be a democratic republic, it needs to be guided by a constitution proposed by an elected Constituent Assembly and finally approved directly by the people through referendum — a provision which the present political regime has managed to strike out of the document.

Ensuing general elections
BANGLADESH is apparently set to hold general elections to its next Jatiya Sangsad — the national parliament that makes and unmakes laws as well as formulates policies for its body politic — on December 30 this year. Since the laws enacted, scrapped or amended and the policies adopted by national parliament guide and control the social, political, economic and cultural lives of the people at large, it is crucially important for the voters in general to choose their representatives to the national body according to their democratic ‘will’ while it is their inherent right to cast their votes in a peaceful political atmosphere free from any kind of intimidations by the powers that be.
Bangladesh, which was born out of blood and fire primarily for a democratic polity and thriving of democracy on egalitarian paths 47 years ago, has not yet witnessed its birth-promises to get materialised, for its successive governments — elected, unelected or half-elected — have hardly taken the promised social political, economic and cultural paths. Meanwhile, despite increasing inequality of income and wealth in the society, the people have not been divided horizontally along the line of political ideology supporting the causes of the rich and the poor. Instead, for various political and historical reasons, the entire society has been divided vertically — along the line of two ruling class political camps of the rich, led by the Bangladesh Awami League and Bangladesh Nationalist Party, almost expelling the poor classes from political leadership at any sphere of the state and society.
The country’s ruling class, divided sharply on the crudely partisan lines of AL and NP, has made the election process so expensive that people even belonging to the middle classes, let alone the poor ones who are otherwise the majority of the population, cannot even think of contesting for a seat of national parliament. The statistics about the professions of six hundred candidates of the AL and NP, three hundred each, shows that 55 per cent of them are businessmen, 11 per cent lawyers, 07 per cent related with peasantry having businesses as well, 06 per cent various professionals, 04 per cent professional politicians while the rest 17 per cent come from various mixed professions.
Be that as it may, the country’s ruling class has not yet been able to introduce an electoral system, which is capable of addressing the electoral concerns of its own conflicting political camps contesting elections for state power, let alone meeting the democratic aspirations of the politically dominated people at large in this regard. Bangladesh, indeed, has an ‘independent’ Election Commission, which is constitutionally conceived to be a party-neutral body to freely conduct elections to the national as well as local bodies and provided with adequate powers and authority to control the public administration and law enforcing agencies supervising the electoral process across the country to ensure that the people can exercise their right to franchise freely. However, the crude partisan way the incumbents mostly pick up the members of the Election Commission, and the kind of politically subservient individuals usually chosen for the job, that the Commission hardly shows any democratic enthusiasm to use its inherent constitutional power and authority to create a level-playing field for all the parties contesting in the elections for power, obviously to appease the governing party that provides them with the otherwise earthly comforts of the lucrative job. The result is obvious: The political parties in the opposition camps are seldom ensured the ‘level playing field’ for contesting the elections and the voters are often deprived of the opportunity to exercise their right to franchise freely, and thus one of the prime causes that the people had fought the country’s liberation war for gets defeated.
Given the visible symptoms, the ensuing national election is likely to be a tragic victim of such a failed system of electioneering: First, the nominations of dozens of opposition candidates were cancelled on flimsy grounds by the partisan public administration officials assuming the role of ‘Returning Officers’ while many of them got redress in the tribunals and courts concerned. Then, began violent obstructions of electoral campaign of the opposition candidates by the ruling party musclemen, simultaneously with the partisan officers of law enforcing agencies picking up the leading opposition activists who play vital roles for drumming up popular supports for the candidates across the constituencies. Then began arrests of opposition candidates and putting them behind bars on various excuses, obviously to prevent them from carrying out electoral campaigns and thus paving the way for ruling party candidates to secure easy victory. Media reports show that between the official beginning of electioneering on December 10 and December 19 — only 10 days ahead of the elections on December 30, some 4,000 opposition activists were picked up by the police, 16 opposition candidates were put behind bars and the official website of the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party has been blocked by the government on December 12 while the ruling party candidates are absolutely free to campaign for their elections unhindered.
The situation has turned so bad that one of the Election Commissioners, Mahbub Talukder, has been forced to admit on December 17, obliquely though, that there is no ‘level playing field’ for the opposition political camp. Indeed, the Chief Election Commissioner, Nurul Huda, had publicly accused his colleague on December 18 that the latter had ‘lied’, but anyone keeping his/her eyes and ears open at the moment would not fail to understand as to who is truthful about the contentious, if at all, issue.
Under such prevailing political circumstances, one can hardly be sure that the people at large would be allowed by the ruling party leaders and activists, visibly backed by the partisan civil administration and law enforcing agencies, to exercise their right to franchise freely, or the environment of fear already created in all the 300 constituencies by the powers that be would at all inspire the peace loving ordinary voters to go to the polling stations to cast their votes, in the first place. Mere participation of all the registered political parties in the electoral race does not qualify an election to be called ‘participatory’, if the voters at large are prevented, directly or indirectly, from going to the polling stations and casting their votes freely.

Predominantly uncritical media engagement
AND here arises the importance of the role of the mass media, particularly the print and electronic ones run by the professional journalists, to take a proactive role in defending democratic norms of elections and objectively critiquing the forces violating the norms and forcing the political camps concerned for course corrections and thus actively supporting the people’s democratic right to freely elect their representatives. The media, after all, is expected to play the role of a ‘watch dog’ in society, keeping a sharp eye on every issues of public importance, obviously including the process of electioneering, and start barking whenever it sees anything wrong with public interests, and thus keep the powers that be on its toe. If anything is short of it, the media reduces itself to a ‘lap dog’ — no matter whose lap it chooses to seek comfort on.
But, alas, it would be too naïve to generally expect that the Bangladeshi media at this point of history would play a party-neutral proactive role to uphold the democratic interests of the people at large, for the media as such, like any other sections of society, is also sharply divided, and that too, again, vertically — basing primarily on the political lines of the ruling class organisations, instead of being polarised horizontally — basing on political ideologies supporting the rich and poor classes of the people. However, at the moment, the incumbent political camp enjoys much stronger supports in community of media practitioners than its opposition counterpart does. There are many reasons, political and economic, for the larger section of the media to provide supports to the incumbents of the day.
It is well known to all that the ruling Awami League-led coalition, a half-elected entity, if not unelected, suffers from serious legitimacy crisis since it had installed its government after a sham January 5 elections in 2014, in which no election took place in 154 constituencies — more seats needed to form a government based on simple majority. Besides, in the absence of any opposition candidates in the electoral fray, less than 10 per cent voters went to the polling stations only to choose their representatives from among the League-led coalition.
Under such circumstance, the incumbents have been seen heavily depending on repressive apparatuses of the state for their survival, particularly in the face of repeated opposition threat to dethrone the government through agitations. The governing party’s dependency appears to have reached its climax in this election times, which is evident in its illegal use of the law enforcing agencies to harass and intimidate the opposition candidates on the one hand and rewarding the young police officers with arbitrary promotions in the midst of electioneering on the other. Reports have it that the government promoted 235 Additional District Superintendents of Police to the rank of District Superintendents on November 7, five Deputy Inspector Generals of Police to the rank of Additional Inspector Generals of Police and promoted 17 Additional Deputy Inspector Generals of Police to the Deputy Inspector Generals on December 19 and promoted 286 Assistant Superintendents of Police to the rank of Additional Superintendents of Police on December 20.
The undemocratic ruling classes of any country are quite aware of the theory of political science that no authoritarian government can survive for long only with the support of the repressive apparatuses, if they cannot create certain amount of ideological legitimacy in society in favour of their existence as ruling authority. For that to happen, the authoritarian rulers always require effective control over the ‘means of expression’ in society, so that a significant section of the mainstream intelligentsia could perpetually produce and reproduce the government narratives about issues of public importance through various media outlets on the one hand and make attempts to refute the public criticism of the anti-people deeds and misdeeds by the incumbents on the other. This is not for no reason that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, while in power, had issued license to some half a dozen private television channels to their party-men and the authoritarian government of Awami League has given license to more than two dozens over the past decade either to its party-men or their relatives and recruited media practitioners through a filtration process to make sure that there is no bull in the china shop.
Then, again, in addition to the perpetual propagation of the partisan narratives about public issues, the undemocratic regimes usually manage to take control over the other media outlets belonging to the rival political camps, or even those committed to independent journalism, to suppress contesting narratives and dissenting views. That the incumbents shut down a couple of television channels previously owned by their political rivals, and managed to take control of another couple of channels by way of effecting change of ownership and replacing their top managers with the politically chosen ones, was purely aimed at monopolising over the ‘means of expressions’ so that a kind of legitimacy is perpetually produced and reproduced in society in favour of the perpetuation of their rule. That the people everyday watch dozens of ‘service intellectuals’ praising the government deeds in many television channels in so many different ways, albeit conveniently keeping silent about its innumerable misdeeds, is a ‘success’ of a half-elected, if not unelected, authoritarian government in terms of perpetuating control over the country’s influential electronic media — both public and private.
While the government’s prime focus of control remains the electronic media due to its greater reach and influence among larger number of the country’s population, the print media is also not spared by the control-freak incumbents. Similar, if not the same, attempts by the powers that be are also there to place loyal partisans as gate-keeping positions of the newspapers, not to mention the partisan use of public advertisements to twist the hands of the professional media organisations. Besides, journalists often receive intimidating phone calls from certain not-so-hidden intelligence agencies of the state to behave, which creates a sense of fear even the hitherto fearless individual journalists, subconsciously forcing them to exercise self-censorship.
Understandably, the incumbents have plagued the Bangladeshi media with multidimensional partisan control for quite some years. It is, therefore, not surprising that as many as 75 journalists, some of them even socially respected, join the ruling Awami League’s ‘election steering media sub-committee’ in mid-November. The media sub-committee in question has reportedly started functioning since November 24 by way of holding a meeting at the League’s Dhanmondi office. There has been no such media report that the Bangladesh Nationalist Party has formed any such media sub-committee, but there is no reason to believe that the journalists having political allegiance to opposition party are sitting idle in this crucial time of electioneering.
It is, therefore, clear that the media engagement is very much there in the ensuing elections, but it is predominantly partisan engagement devoid of broader public interests. There are, obviously, independent media outlets and even individual journalists in the partisan ones trying to serve the people at large, but that is quite inadequate in terms of the huge responsibilities that democratic media is expected to discharge during national elections. The political implication of such inadequacy is bound to prove suicidal for all concerned in the days to come. Nevertheless, I am optimistic that things would change for the positive, some day. For that to happen, however, the democratic sections of the mass media have to make conscious efforts to take special care that the media practitioners develop the habit of looking at things critically with an accent on public interest.

Nurul Kabir, editor, New Age .The article was presented at a seminar, styled as Media Engagement for Fair Elections, organised by the Dhaka based Centre for Governance Studies on December 22.

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