Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dhaka Media in despair

Journalism is a profession which symbolizes freedom, and yet that struggle for freedom is still not over in Bangladesh. The BNP government shut down Ekushe Television and forced Simon Dring to leave Dhaka. The 1/11 administration switched off CSB. And now the Awami League has made Channel One its first victim. There may have been legitimate reasons to do so, but as these governments hold more grudges against these media outlets than they are ready to forgive, all the above mentioned closures defy the right of expression.

Simon Dring-led ETV had a strong editorial policy but the then BNP government felt threatened by the immense acceptance and popularity of the then only private terrestrial TV station. The best ever TV newsroom in Dhaka was forced into a wasteland. A group of talented and romantically motivated journalists had to slaughter their dreams and look elsewhere for survival. What they lost in dreams they more or less made up by now being the leading forces in today’s major TV channels. But those Ekushe days never came back. I believe that if they had been allowed to work without such interruptions, TV journalism in Dhaka would have claimed global standards.

But BNP failed to muster such a vision. It stunted the growth of TV journalism by a two-pronged attack: closing down Ekushe and at the same time granting new licenses to unprofessional party workers who saw this profession as a means to whiten their money; the same money and media power that was then used in favor of BNP. Maintaining a Fox TV-type mouthpiece in a democratic society can be justified in the name of ‘liberty’ but the butterfly effect caused by the assassination of ETV led to today’s professional loopholes which allowed the Awami League government to target Channel One. Had BNP then given licenses to professionals instead of money launderers, no subsequent authority would have had the precedented means to shut down Channel One today.

On the other hand, while both CSB and Channel One had dozens of bright, young journalists, porous editorial policies could not provide any beacon of guidance. On top of that the managements of those two channels failed to ensure steady financial support. Hence, we saw the rise of meaningless talk shows and a culture of politically incorrect live feeds. In such a situation any government can be marginally excused for taking advantage of such unprofessionalism. Vulnerable channels would be wise to learn from this latest round of media witch hunting.

The present government argues that as the once jobless ETV journalists could find jobs, it shouldn’t be a problem for those left high and dry by the closure of Channel One, especially now that there are dozens of new channels floating around. But I wonder how many channels can survive on the same stagnant amount of advertisement.

Most big sponsors have their own TV channels to run their advertisements, and the few lone fish should be pragmatic enough to realize that unless you attract stable viewership no investor will part with their money.

Investors in Bangladesh generally do not have the patience for steady returns: they want instant profit and media is a slow earner. Even then media profits are more in terms of power and indirect monies rather than hard cash. So it requires a lot of skill, patience and vision to balance out owner’s interest and editorial independence. What to talk of Dhaka, even stable TV channels in rich, democratic countries cannot escape this conflict. Running a media outlet in Bangladesh has sadly become synonymous with losing a big chunk of ethics for small chunks of money. This is one reason why the post of the Head of News has become a game of musical chairs slumped under the weight of compromises.

Even the most successful of media houses in Dhaka can only afford to pay their staff half of what their contemporaries earn in India or Pakistan. They forget that our young journalists are not coal miners. When owners are awarded licenses without proven business ethics, they are bound to turn media houses into coal mines. The wave of death surrounding young journalists in Dhaka speaks of the level and extent of their exploitation. For proof, just go through the medical reports of News Editors in Dhaka. The last one year alone has seen a dramatic rise in the number of heart attacks and deaths of News Editors.

And we should not forget the fifth columnists within the journalist community: those placed at top positions who enjoy the perks of invitations to neo elite clubs. They are the middlemen, hired with the specific mandate to facilitate media owners’ interests through the poor corridors of newsrooms. Young promising reporters give their best in this worst kind of situation, but day after day of handling egocentric palace conspiracies they become too exhausted to be creative.

Just feel the dichotomy: media owners wear designer suits, dine at five star hotels, drive Prados, abuse their press power to gain political or economic benefits, yet they expect lowly-paid journalists to uphold the middle class myths of honor and sacrifice. Owners don’t want to be burdened with professional remuneration packages but they do want the moon.

But the possibility of a silver lining is still alive. Change can yet come. The second generation of investors, with western education, are stepping in. They are likely to be more open to positive changes. So is the new breed of young journalists which is gradually taking over the helm of media. More importantly, thanks to virtual revolution the audience seems more conscious than ever before.

There can be no escaping the fight for respectful survival. Dhaka journalists are ready for it. The more the government abuses their freedom, the more they are adamant to hit back. Owners of media houses will have to get rid of their medieval feudal attitude and learn the value of an independent media.
On an endearing note, hats off to those few houses that continue to maintain professionalism despite all odds, hats off to those few who deliver unbiased news even while sitting on chairs that might collapse anytime.

No comments: