Bangladesh has a thriving media and communication sector. Since the start of the 20th century, print, radio, television, film and the internet have played a big role in the country’s communication ecosystem. According to government data, there are 1,277 daily newspapers in Bangladesh, along with numerous other periodicals. The number of television channels is astounding as well: 45 stations, four of which are state-owned, are airing programmes. This is not to mention the innumerable foreign television channels.

A good number of privately owned radio stations, in addition to state-owned radio, are operational. Alongside these, there are 18 community radio stations located in different parts of the country; these air only community-oriented programmes. Many radio stations have closed down in the past decade. The internet is largely responsible for this, as many listeners have shifted over to internet sources. Easy access to the internet means online news portals and subscription-based OTT platforms have gained in popularity.

The rise of telecoms

The rise of telecommunications has influenced the media and communication sector. According to 2023 data from Bangladesh’s telecoms regulatory agency, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC), the sector saw a boom at the beginning of the new millennium. Currently, there are 186 million mobile phone users and 125 million internet users in Bangladesh. This has contributed to a growing demand for app-based services. To regulate this huge sector, a policy framework has been put in place. Many new policies are in the pipeline.

Bangladesh’s policy gap in the media and communication space, including in news media, remains prominent. Part of the problem relates to a lack of imagination: the sector is perceived in a compartmentalised way. In this age of media convergence, it is counterproductive to address the policy question as a standalone issue for any particular media type.

In the 1990s, scholars working at the global level urged for an integrated media and telecommunications policy. They argued that separation was not viable in devising media and communication policy. In a 2007 paper, media studies researcher Philip Napoli argued that, in media policy-making, boundary lines must not be drawn around particular communication technologies. In the digital era, digitisation and convergence mean that media and transcultural communication have become porous across various policy fields. Media policy agenda cuts through press, broadcasting, telecommunications, culture and infotech. These concerns surely invite a revisit to the scope of media and communication policy-making.

A vision for the media?

Bangladesh has declared its vision to be an advanced economy by 2041, and has labelled this vision ‘Smart Bangladesh.’ But, for this vision, what policy is there regarding media, communication and journalism? Journalism in Bangladesh has grown as an established field but it is yet to receive rigorous policy attention. There are crucial questions surrounding media freedom and media democratisation, which merit serious public attention. Therefore, it is high time to rethink media and communication policy approaches. There is a crucial void in the policy sphere on how to regulate and govern the media. Without clarity on the interactive roles of society, state and media organisations, Bangladeshi policy-makers will continue to face harsh challenges.

Journalism in Bangladesh has grown as an established field but it is yet to receive rigorous policy attention.

Dozens of laws and policies govern the Bangladesh media and communication sector. A big chunk of these policies and laws are old, enacted either before or immediately after the country’s independence in 1971. They are still the foundations in terms of regulating media and communication. The burning question is: should an old policy regime serve as a foundation for the regulations needed in this digitech era?

Media and influence

A hegemonic politico-commercial nexus dominates Bangladesh’s media policy-making process. As a result, a top-down approach persists in media and communication policy-making practice. The majority of owners of television channels are politicians, giving them an upper hand in policy-making. For example, print media is overwhelmingly owned by business elites, and many print media owners are in mainstream politics. On top of this, the broadcast regulations have yet not been able to counter two common concerns: preventing the trauma of news-making professionals losing jobs overnight and ending the fear of sudden closure of television stations.

The broadcasting system of any country should be free from the control of vested interests, while also being regulated through effective policies. This nuance is missing in the case of Bangladesh. The democratisation of media policies will require a transparent and participatory policy-making process. Stakeholders such as government agencies, media professionals, civil society organisations and citizen groups need to be involved in this.

People’s media

In Bangladesh, the reality is that the general public is rarely able to influence media policies because they are perceived as irrelevant stakeholders in policy-making. For instance, in 2014, a new Broadcasting Policy draft was put up online to promote public participation in policy-making. The general public could post comments or communicate their concerns via email. This was a good step. However, the government did not clarify how the public’s opinions would channel into the policy space – although some suggestions from civil society organisations were integrated into the policy. Civil society organisations are not an appropriate substitute for the mass populace, however.

In the end, in Bangladesh, this lack of public participation is a blind spot in current media policies. To address this, there is a need to reform the current policies – but revising the ever-growing number of policies will frankly be quite difficult. Here, a well-aligned policy framework could address all of the above, ensuring freedom of expression, distributing ownership of the airwaves, encouraging media plurality, safeguarding jobs of media professionals and fostering public participation.

Complexity and convergence

The media landscape in Bangladesh is becoming increasingly complex. Different types of media are becoming mutually dependent. They are forming intricate relationships with both the masses and the government. The fast-changing nature of the media landscape means many new policies will become redundant faster than ever seen before.

The changes in the media landscape point to a media convergence. To address the evolving changes, a paradigm change in thinking is essential. Therefore, media and communication policy approaches need to be reimagined. If the media and communication field is not regulated through a comprehensive policy, it could pose long-term policy complications, leading to communication failures and misinformation sprees. The word ‘regulate’ does not mean ‘control’ in this context; rather, it refers to creating an effective and supportive governance system.

If the media and communication field is not regulated through a comprehensive policy, it could pose long-term policy complications, leading to communication failures and misinformation sprees.

Journalism crisis

While the media and communication sector has boomed, the number of journalists has also expanded. Bangladeshi journalists, especially the bottom-liners, commonly face job insecurity, unequal wages and exploitative authority. Low-income journalists are increasingly vulnerable to political and monetary influences. Even traditional print media has become a dual-purpose tool for politics and business. The use of newspapers as a political tool raises concerns about the autonomy of journalists.

A law proposed to regulate journalism in 2018 was heavily criticised. A former president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ), a prominent collective bargaining body for journalists, claimed that 37 of the 54 clauses of that law were not journalist-friendly. The law would benefit only owners and prevent journalists from forming trade unions, raising labour rights issues. Another former president of BFUJ argued that the opinions of journalists, media workers and media owners must be included in the law.

In order to ensure the rights of journalists, it is crucial to incorporate the voices of all stakeholders during policy formulation. Without effective policies, journalism cannot flourish. In order to regulate journalism practices, policy-makers can introduce an accreditation system. Currently, in Bangladesh, there is no need for any specific qualifications in becoming a journalist. No licensing procedure is in place, which creates an unruly news media sector. As a consequence, the journalism profession remains fragile, owing to skill shortages. Interestingly, journalists themselves oppose policy interventions to introduce any accreditation practice.

A focus on regulations

Bangladesh needs a smartly regulated media and communication sector, which can be achieved through a uniform national accreditation system. With no policy on the accreditation of journalists, malpractices are widespread in the journalism sector. A defective system fuels malpractices whereby journalists unknowingly perform the roles of an investigating authority, an interventionist, an inspector or an intruder.

In Bangladesh, reimagining policies, regulations and governance for the media and communication sectors has become crucial. The time for a comprehensive policy is now. In this endeavour, the lack of public participation in media policy-making needs to be addressed. For this, policy-makers need to think beyond civil society organisations and advocacy groups. They can also take advantage of the local government system to make media policy-making a people-centric process.

 

Photo © Mahmud Hossain Opu

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Ratan Kumar Roy is an Assistant Professor at BRAC University, Dhaka. He is a sociologist. He is the Chief Coordinator at the International Research Center of SIMEC Institute of Technology. He was a Residency Fellow at Asia Culture Centre, South Korea, and a Research Fellow at the Centre for Culture, Media & Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He was Co-Editor of the UNESCO-SWAN reports on the Status of Women in Media in South Asia in 2020. He pursued his doctoral studies in sociology at South Asian University, New Delhi.
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S. M. Shameem Reza is Professor of mass communication and journalism at the University of Dhaka. He is an academician. He is Founder of the Center for Communication Action Bangladesh (C-CAB). He was Communication Advisor at the World Bank, UNICEF and Save the Children. He was an ASIA Fellow at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) and a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of London. He pursued his doctoral studies in media democratisation at the University of London, UK.