IN THE wake of the passage, amidst opposition by journalists, of the Digital Security Act 2018, having at least nine sections which could curb the freedom of expression and the freedom of the press that are internationally recognised as devices to make democracy meaningful, the cabinet on Monday approved in principle the Broadcasting Bill 2018 proposing restrictions on the transmission, by television and radio channels and online media outlets, of programmes, news and advertisements that may ‘harm the history and image’ of the country, be in contrary to public interest and destabilise law and order. The bill proposes the establishment of a broadcasting commission to regulate the electronic media — as the National Broadcasting Policy, approved in early August 2014 envisaged with an aim for a common, combined broadcasting system for all electronic media outlets, radio and television, public or private — keeping to international practice and standards to ensure ‘objectivity, neutrality and accountability’ of the mass media. But what comes as worrying is that the bill in question proposes seven years’ imprisonment and Tk 50 million in fine in the maximum punishment for offences of 24 types that the bill deals with as many of the offences have no unambiguous definitions.
Such propositions, as journalists are reported be fearing, would allow more government control of the electronic media and would diminish the space for the creation of common knowledge that keeps democracy functioning, in view of the fact that television is influential as it has potential to give voice to the broad masses that hardly read, instead of fostering and extending a democratic environment and giving out the information that the citizens need. The bill proposes prohibition on the airing of programmes and advertisements that may appear ‘satirical of national ideology’, anything that could go against a foreign country affecting ties and anything that could disturb sectarian harmony or perturb traditional values of the nation. But many of the offences are left open to subjective interpretation, leaving space for their misuse by the authorities that could create space to curtail media freedom. Expressions such as ‘misinformation’, ‘disinformation’ and ‘malinformation’ are not defined in no unambiguous terms and individual, subjective and partisan interpretation of the terms could create a disaster. If the issues in the bill are not adequately attended to, the media would need to forgo their role in holding the government to account on issues that make democracy meaningful.
The bill’s express intent to ensure standards — in programmes, news, advertisements and other such products — may sound to be the saving grace, but the definition of even that expression is not specific enough not to give birth to scepticism. While the government, under the circumstances, must realise that it must ensure the free flow of information, keeping to Article 39 of the constitution, and make the media socially responsible, people at large also need to realise that onslaught on the freedom of the media could lead to onslaught on individual liberty and they need to rally around journalists to mount pressure on the government so that it reviews and revises the bill.
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