Media globalisation has put forward, before the key actors of Bangladesh, new challenges in formulating media and communication policies. Emerging trends in politics and governance, and technological changes are shaping the nature of media policies in South Asia. Recent developments in Bangladesh broadcasting sector are impressive, but the necessary actions towards reforming the media system look indecisive. Existing media laws, policies, rules and regulations that govern the country’s media and communication, advertisement and entertainment industries are either insufficient or not comprehensive enough to meet the contemporary needs.
Over the last decade, broadcast media, namely radio and television have experienced impressive operational advancement. But the policy decisions for the broadcast media sector have not always been consistent and timely. Since Bangladesh’s independence, all the successive governments considered broadcasting media as powerful tools for nation building and social uplift. However, during the undemocratic regimes, absence of public debates on media and communication issues led to authoritarian policy-planning for media in general and broadcasting in particular. Despite several terms of political governance, we still find the absence of integrated policy approaches. In fact, what we see as the usual
practice is the continuation of conventional partial policies for governing the broadcast media sector.
Despite the above limitations, media development and liberalisation in policy decisions are evident. Bangladesh has already experienced quite a rapid growth of private satellite television channels and FM radio stations as opposed to a single state-controlled television and national radio service. I believe that recent broadcasting policy agendas in Bangladesh are in some ways manifestation of the neo-liberalism. As campaigns for a favourable media environment have been multi-layered, among other stakeholders, non-state actors are playing some key roles. Proactive roles of civil society groups in persuading the South Asian governments to enact access of information laws is an example of how the values of neo-liberal democracy have been influential in media, communication and information policy attempts.
Broadcasting in the changing mediascape
The Bangladesh mediascape is changing quite fast although we may be critical of the quality of output and social responsibilities performed by broadcasting media. However, besides the state broadcaster, audiences now have access to other radio and television programming. Of the total 23 television channels, currently the audience can watch 20 channels. Some more private satellite television stations are preparing to go on air soon. In addition to programmes aired by the state radio network, Bangladesh Betar, people can listen to private radio stations, popularly known as FM Radio. The government permitted 14 Community radio stations to operate, of which 12 stations have already started broadcasting.
State-run Bangladesh Television (BTV) has three channels — BTV (Terrestrial), BTV World (Satellite) and Shongshod Bangladesh Television. In 2009, parliament made a law to retain the terrestrial right solely in the hand of BTV. Its terrestrial broadcasting can be accessed from almost everywhere in the country. Nowadays, Bangladeshi private satellite channels and foreign TV channels can be accessed even in smaller towns and their adjacent areas.
Bangladesh Betar with its 12 regional stations has nation-wide coverage. Its external service broadcasts in six languages. Betar also lends air time to a number of international radio broadcasters. Five private FM radio stations are available in some selected urban areas and have become particularly popular among young listeners. Community radio stations (CRS) including a Community Rural Radio stationed in different areas of the country has potential to cater for the information and communication needs of the local communities. There is a lack of credible data for information about the number and operations of Bangladeshi online radios. However, we have heard of few online campus radios. I believe, besides online broadcasting, with appropriate guidelines and frequency plans, campus radio may emerge as the fourth broadcasting tier in Bangladesh, targeting the needs of the large number of campus communities.
While discussing broadcasting in a changing mediascape, it is important to touch upon the regulatory systems that affect the media governance. Before we focus on issues of regulation, let us take a glimpse of the broadcasting regulatory framework in Bangladesh:
‘Regulation’ and ‘Control’ in broadcasting
Broadcasting regulation should refer to a policy framework for setting out rules and guiding principles in covering pertinent aspects of broadcasting services. ‘Regulation’ at different levels has bearing on media operations and right to freedom of expression. Broadcasting policy debates around the world focus on issues of regulation as part of media governance. Many of us however perceive it literally as ‘control’ and ‘pressure’ from the government or regulators. Certain restrictions also come from the business or industry itself. And ‘self-regulation’ is a form of control which is no less harmful than any imposed directives. Generally we refer to regulations that come from the government authorities. Control over the media programming was a concern during the period of the last caretaker government. Although there was limited or no explicit reporting in the print and broadcasting media the issue was discussed in alternative public spheres.
Our broadcasting media have the experience of receiving ‘telephone advice’, ‘instructions’ and ‘directives’ from time to time. Media people used to get various directives and advices from the caretaker government (2006-2009) authorities on do’s and don’ts of programming agendas. For example, restrictions were imposed on TV talk shows. Operations of a number of private television channels came to an end as it appeared to the authorities that they were not established lawfully or broadcasting legitimately. Operations of the first private terrestrial TV channel of the country, Ekushey TV was closed in August 2002. Private television station CSB was shut down in 2007 and Channel 1 was closed in 2010. Earlier, on the ground of illegitimate broadcasting or failure to comply with the regulatory authority’s conditions for permission, some other private TV broadcasting was declared illegal at the very primary stage.
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Closure of television channels had consequences on media personnels’ job security, exercise of freedom of expression and media plurality. Besides, lack of a clear set of rules and policy limitations lead us to realise that broadcasting system of a country deserves protection from control; and at the same time, should be looked after through the implementation of an effective policy framework. There are of course benefits of maintaining check and balance in the broadcasting system. In order to make necessary reforms in this sector, a legal/policy framework would be useful. Thus, a comprehensive broadcasting policy can be beneficial in:
i) Protecting the right to freedom of expression and upholding diversity of opinion;
ii) Facilitating most effective distribution of airwave as public property and ensuring public ownership over country commons;
iii) Ensuring programming content targeting special audiences;
iv) Encouraging media plurality;
v) Ensuring fare competition and regulating detrimental nature of ownership;
vi) Protecting audience/consumers’ interest; and
vii) Looking after security and welfare issues of media people
Laws and policies to govern broadcasting
There are around 50 laws and regulations that currently govern the media and communication, advertisement and entertainment industries of Bangladesh. More than 30 acts have either direct or indirect bearings on the installation, operations and broadcasting of audio-visual media, including BTV and Bangladesh Betar. Some of these laws have not been updated. Provisions in the old laws, such as The Telegraph Act (1885); The Wireless Telegraphy Act (1933); The Contempt of Court Act (1926); The Penal Code (1860); and The Code of Criminal Procedure (1898) still work as the basis for regulating Bangladesh broadcasting.
There are, however, comparatively new laws enacted after the independence, which in addition to the above laws/polices, work to govern the broadcasting sector. These laws/policies for example, include:
* Provisions of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, 1972
* (Provisions of) The Special Power Act, 1974
* Advertising Policy for Bangladesh Betar, 1979
* Guidelines for Radio Television Programs, 1986
* Bangladesh Television Film Censor Guidelines and Rules, 1985
* Guideline Regarding Selection of Foreign Films for Telecast on Bangladesh Television, 1988
Rhetoric and reality of policy initiatives Neo-liberal trends have prompted key policy actors around the globe to take up measures for liberalising media and telecommunications laws. In Bangladesh, telecommunication sector has been able to derive more benefits of liberalisation process than the broadcasting sector, which is still constrained by policy limitations. Despite certain challenges, processes of economic and to some extent political liberalisation have widened the scope for rethinking media policy issues in the Bangladesh context. This is, I believe, also the time to determine the roles of multi-stakeholders in shaping the contemporary debates of regulation, media governance and broadcasting policies. Media policy-making processes may include relevant media people, owners and investors, civil society organisations, citizen groups, media policy experts and even non-state actors along with government authorities.
The last Election Manifesto of Bangladesh Awami League (AL), known as ‘A Charter for Change’ (announced on December 12, 2008) recognises the freedom of media and information. Other major political party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), did not mention anything specific about media or information policies although it made a commitment in its election manifesto to form a parliamentary standing committee on media. For public benefit, the AL-led government retained a number of polices and ordinances promulgated by the caretaker government. ‘Community radio policy 2008’ and ‘Right to Information Act (RTIA) 2009’ were among those laws that the current government endorsed as good policies.
Previous governments expressed their interest to formulate a comprehensive policy for the broadcasting media. Over the years their statements have contributed to the making of a political discourse about broadcasting policy, but that never turned into a cohesive policy action. In October 2004, A M M Nasiruddin, the then acting secretary to information ministry said that the government was willing to formulate a media policy aiming to remove existing anomalities in the media. He also stated that the media policy was not to control the media rather to help the sector (The Daily Star, 5 Oct. 2004). The current government’s Information and Cultural Affairs Minister, Abul Kalam Azad said the government had taken an initiative to formulate a comprehensive policy for print and electronic media for their balanced flourishment and proportionate growth, but negative approach from different quarters obstructed the government’s sincere efforts (BSS, 30 March 2010).
Last year, Bangladesh news media reported that the government prepared “Private Broadcasting Policy 2010 (Draft)”. Although the draft policy was never circulated or distributed by the government as a public document, journalists, operators of private broadcasting media and media advocates criticised the provisions that might limit the freedom of media and called for a revision of the policy (The Daily Star, 12 & 13 Sept. 2011; Manabzamin, 11 Sept. 2011).
In response, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Information sent back the draft policy to the concerned ministry for revision and further improvement.
Although our anticipation of an integrated broadcasting policy still remains unfulfilled, a right to information act (with the provision of an information commission) and a number of partial media/broadcasting policies were formulated in recent years. In order for us to have an impression of the state of recent laws that are directly or indirectly related to broadcasting in Bangladesh, we may take a look at the following:
* (Draft) Private Television Policy 2010 (not yet circulated; and currently under review)
* Establishment and Operation of FM Radio Centre under Private Ownership Policy, 2010
* Preservation for BTV of Terrestrial Television Broadcast Facilities Act, 2009
* The Right to Information Act, 2009
* Television Channel Installation and Operations in Private Ownership Policy, 1998 (Private Satellite Television Policy)
* Community Radio Installation, Operation and Broadcast Policy, 2008
* Ordinance for Cable Television Network Operation and Related Regulations, 2006
* Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) Act, 2001
“The Telecommunication Act (for further amendment of Telecom Act 2001), 2010” and “The Information and Communication Technology Act, 2006” are two recent laws that too have relevance to broadcasting. These laws will be more useful as Bangladesh broadcasting media have moved towards technological convergence and digital switchover. There are a few other policy developments, such as for the sustainability of community radio broadcasting, Ministry of Information (MoI) has approved the “Community Radio Strategy” paper.
Key issues in broadcasting policy and planning
A major challenge in formulating an integrated policy will be to creating a legal framework for encompassing existing tiers of broadcasting media. Such policy should also comprise means to address the needs of the next generation of broadcasting.
An autonomous broadcasting commission will recommend for license and spectrum allocation. The commission will among other responsibilities, look into the issues of media convergence, ownership patterns and nature of investments. Most importantly, the commission should have enough policy support and capacity to meet the challenge of ensuring fair competition and maintaining discipline in the growth and operations at all levels of broadcasting.
Establishment, appointment and function of broadcasting authority:
Usually a broadcasting policy would keep provision of establishing a broadcasting authority. The policy should also provide directives for the establishment and constitution of a broadcasting authority; set rules for appointment, tenure, functions and jurisdiction, funding, etc. Among other tasks, the commission/authority will facilitate the much needed research, monitoring and evaluation.
Coping with telecommunications policies and technology changes:
Our expected comprehensive broadcasting policy should have scope and guiding principles to integrate existing telecommunications and ICT policies. One of the biggest issues as well as challenges to formulate such policy for Bangladesh would be to have policy flexibility in order to keep pace with technological changes. This again leads us to the arguments in favour of policy convergence, rather than applying too many partial policies in broadcasting sector.
We shall need to have dynamic, accountable and less bureaucratic policy approaches to deal with, for example, permission for broadcasting establishment, licensing, frequency allocation planning and monitoring.
Coordination among authorities and stakeholders:
There is a greater need for coordination among the ministries and with regulatory authority like BTRC. As formulating a comprehensive policy is multi-layered and the process demands involvement of various stakeholders at different levels, an optimum level of coordination between various departments and ministries of the government, professional bodies and expert groups will be crucial. Dialogue will be essential to ensure participation of stakeholders including the audience whose perspectives can be known either by surveys or through consultations with audience groups’ representatives.
As mentioned earlier, a potential integrated broadcasting policy should be able to address the challenge and opportunities of new media and technological switchovers. In Bangladesh, we have not yet started talking about the issues of Digital Switchover at great length. However, our expected comprehensive policy should not provide guidelines on operational aspects of traditional broadcasting, but also for new systems of broadcasting, such as internet protocol TV, mobile TV and digital audio broadcasting.
Special programming and consumer rights:
A comprehensive policy should provide guidelines for special programmes targeting audiences with special communication and information needs. At the same time, the policy will include provisions for protecting audience/consumer rights. Thus, a broadcasting policy would be useful in monitoring social responsibilities of the broadcast media.
Licensing and appeals:
A broadcasting policy must provide clear directives on licensing, renewal of licenses or breach of license. The policy should admit the applicant’s right to appeal; and enable the commission to give remedies for grievances.
Compatibility with international standard: Bangladesh broadcast policy should be formulated in line with international standard so that in the future, a common media policy for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region can be thought of. In that sense, we may need to rethink our broadcasting policy issues both contextually and universally.
I believe a comprehensive broadcasting policy would help democratise and bring discipline to the broadcasting sector, contribute to the freedom of cultural expression, ensure equity and access, and encourage plurality and participation. There are limitations in the existing partial policies, and too many policies, laws and rules have become burdensome in media governance. Therefore, I would advocate for a policy framework which would facilitate equitable growth of public service, commercial, community and future broadcasting in Bangladesh. However, at the end of the day, a consensus of opinion and political commitment will be vital in formulating an integrated national broadcasting policy.