Tuesday, May 19, 2009
His Master's Voice
Let a hundred flowers blossom and a hundred schools of thought contend
In the general elections that took place last December, Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League, on numerous occasions promised to create what she called a 'Digital Bangladesh'. In a country infested with unabated corruption and silent famine, the call earned her a huge fan following among the new young voters who saw Hasina as a cheerleader of change. Four months after her electoral landslide, that much-touted change has still not arrived at the Bangladesh Television headquarters in Rampura. Faces of old sycophants have been replaced with new ones. 'Aat-tar Shongbad' (ATS; News at Eight), the channel's flagship news programme, stills broadcasts reports of no news value as headlines, news so insignificant that it would not have otherwise deserved a third-page single column treatment in the following day's paper. If one watches the ATS everyday (which many viewers will find rather torturous) one will see a trend, however disturbing, repeated every night: "I think the BTV news crew live with the ministers 24 hours a day," says Nurunnahar, who watches the BTV every night out of compulsion as her meagre income as a maid does not allow her to subscribe to satellite channels.
There are hundreds and thousands of viewers like Nurunnahar who are forced to watch ministers speaking as chief guests at the annual cultural programme of schools. "Four months ago, it was the Advisers I watched every night at eight on television, two years ago it was Khaleda Zia and her ministers," Nurunnahar says. None of the 14 television channels that fight for the attention of the country's millions of viewers has the license for territorial broadcast. A new law titled 'Terrestrial Telecast Facilities Preservation for Bangladesh Television Act 2009' (TTFP), to which the Prime Minister has given her nod last month gives the BTV the sole owner of the rights to terrestrial facility. It means that no other television channel will be able to broadcast programmes using their own terrestrial equipments; to watch every channel but the BTV the viewers have to pay the cable operators.
Muhammad Jahangir, an eminent media analyst, thinks the very idea is anti-democratic. "The government believes in Free Market Economy; and in a free market everyone has the right to compete with each other. Terrestrial equipments are costly, not all channels would have been able to own them, but enacting a blanket law to prohibit anyone from using the facility is ludicrous," he says.
What makes it even more complicated is that whenever a political government comes to power the BTV is virtually run by the party that holds power. "It comes at a heavy price; the television authority tends to satisfy the cultural activists of the party in power, and at times it airs substandard programmes only because they are made by a BNP or AL activist," Jahangir says. He also says that the 'Package Programme' of the BTV is plagued with corruption as in many a time the BTV buys below standard programmes, shows that no channel in the country would run.
In fact, members of the civil society has criticised the TTFP. Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, secretary of non-governmental organisation Shujan, thinks the government should open the sky for any channel that wants to broadcast terrestrially. "The very idea that only one channel, and that too run by the government, can hold such a right runs counter to the tenets of democracy," he says.
The excuse that the government has come up with for taking such a draconian measure is that giving everyone terrestrial license will put the country's national security at risk. But Jahangir finds the idea difficult to buy; he says, "It is not the same as buying a MIG-29; instead, an open terrestrial license policy will free our airwaves. The government, after all, does not tell the newspapers that only the government-run newspaper will be run in four colours, all others have to limit themselves to only black and white." He also thinks that if an open terrestrial policy is not pursued it will make a mockery of Sheikh Hasina's promise of Digital Bangladesh. "You can never get a scientifically advanced country if you have policies like the ones that we have," he says.
Without freeing the BTV from the clutches of nepotism and sycophancy, the establishment of Digital Bangladesh is impossible. In the manifesto of the Three Alliances that led the country towards the great Democratic Revolution of 1990, all the major parties promised to give autonomy to the BTV, which during the deposed military dictator Gen HM Ershad's rule was known as "the Sahib and his servants' idiot box". In the general elections that were followed by Ershad's ouster from power, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) led by Khaleda Zia was voted to power, and in her five-year term she never did anything to free the BTV. The Awami League government, which followed Khaleda's rule, formed a committee to give autonomy to the BTV, which was gradually losing audience to the satellite channels. In the elections of 2001, the BNP came back to power, riding a massive electoral landfall, and Khaleda did everything at her disposal to tighten her grip on the lone provider of terrestrial broadcasting.
In the three consecutive elections since the restoration of democracy the AL, in its manifesto, promised to set the BTV free. The party had made last year's polls an exception; its Charter for Change did not include the BTV issue. Because of this, Jahangir thinks, the AL cannot be blamed for not making the BTV an autonomous body, as during the electioneering the party has never made any such promise. "We cannot blame them," he says, "but I find their actions deplorable. The state-run television must be immediately freed."
Majumdar says that the sycophants have always been the cause of the last governments' downfall. "As the BTV has the sole terrestrial rights, every owner of a television set has access to the BTV and for some, the BTV is the only source of entertainment," he says. In the last 37 years, the channel's talk shows and news have tittered on the verge of cheap canvassing for the parties in power and their policies. In an entertainment-starved country the voters will not like it if Sisimpur is switched off the air to show the government's latest effort to make the campus free of thuggery and gangsterism.
It is understandable that the government will find it difficult to part with the BTV. But it must also understand that in an era where the citizens of the country are exposed to the Internet and love to have options in choosing what to watch and what not to, the BTV, in the hands of government, is more a liability than an asset. The government needs to give autonomy to the BTV as soon as it can; it must be freed from every kind of nepotism and the channel should purge all the inept producers and crew.
It is good that the government wants to establish another new channel; but there will be further trouble if it is run like the BTV. The government should also seriously think of starting a sport channel. A national broadcasting policy must also be formed. The government should pave the way for new private television channels, especially the ones that will cater to the younger generation. The BTV has always been known as its master's voice, now is the time to let the channel run on its own. The only way forward to establishing a vibrant democracy is to allow free, unhindered flow of information. The AL-led government will create a milestone in our short history of democracy if it gives full autonomy to the BTV, allowing it to run as an independent entity. Only time can tell if the government, which has the support of the whole nation behind it, will be able to rise up to the occasion or not.