Bangladesh Commission Recommends Possible 30-day Suspension for Newspapers

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
160503-BD-press-limits-620.jpg Atiqullah Khan Masud (center), editor and publisher of The Daily Janakantha, appears in court in Dhaka where he was convicted for criticizing a judge, Aug. 13, 2015.

A commission’s recommendation in favor of suspending any newspaper that prints defamatory or false stories is spurring a lively debate over the limits of a free press in Bangladesh.

The debate is also spreading to broadcast news and online media, where other moves are raising questions about whether the government is trying to impose controls in those journalistic realms as well, critics say.

Last month, the country’s Law Commission recommended amending the Press Council Act of 1974 in order to authorize the state-backed Bangladesh Press Council to suspend publication of any newspaper for up to 30 consecutive days, if it is deemed to have violated the council’s code on journalistic ethics.

“The Press Council turned to us for recommendations on ways to strengthen its authority. We made several suggestions,” commission member M. Shah Alam told BenarNews.

“We know that the recommendation has created controversy. But we just made a recommendation, and it is up to the council and the government whether they would accept it,” he said.

Government officials say the 42-year-old act needs to be amended because the law is too limited in censuring journalists for ethical violations.

The press council, a quasi-judicial body headed by a retired high court judge, includes senior journalists and is tasked with ensuring ethical standards in the media.

“The journalists do not bother if they are warned or censured for ethical violations. So, we sought recommendations from the law commission on the ways to strengthen the council,” council chairman Mamtaz Uddin Ahmed told BenarNews.

“I am not in favor of closure of newspapers. But there should be some measures to strengthen the council so journalists do not violate the codes of conduct,” he added.

The council will review the commission’s recommendation and deliver its own recommendations on a proposed amendment of the act to the Ministry of information. If the ministry accepts the recommendations, it will send them as a bill to parliament.

‘A toothless tiger’

Bangladeshi journalists are divided over the issue.

“We have strongly opposed the law commission’s suggestions to suspend the newspapers even for a day,” Reazuddin Ahmed, a press council member and editor of News Today, told BenarNews, adding that financial penalties or other measure might be acceptable.

Mortuza Haider Liton, a member of the executive committee of the Dhaka Union of Journalists echoed Ahmed.

“This will drag out burgeoning journalism and curtail freedom of expression,” he said.

But the head of the Press Institute of Bangladesh (PIB) disagreed.

“The press council is basically a toothless tiger,” Shah Alamgir Hossain told BenarNews.

“What would happen if aggrieved people filed a dozen defamation suits against a journalist in courts in different parts of the country? The press council should have been strengthened so that people can trust in it and not [have to] go to the high court,” he said.

Broadcast, online policies

Meanwhile, the information ministry has called on the Press Institute to form a national broadcast commission, which would oversee the implementation of a broadcast policy instituted by the government in 2014.

“On May 5, we will hold a meeting with all stakeholders to finalize the proposal on formation of the commission and send it to the government,” Hossain said.

The two-year-old policy stipulates that TV and radio broadcasters should not air anything that would harm the image of the state, persons, the armed forces or other forces tasked with maintaining law and order in the country.

According to the policy, broadcasters should not broadcast anything that may sour Bangladesh’s relations with a friendly country. The policy also forbids broadcasters from hurting religious sentiment.

In addition, the Press Institute is expected to finalize the draft of an online policy that would require all new websites to register themselves with the government – a move that has drawn criticism.

“What the government wants is to regulate all media – newspapers, the online portals and the TV and radio – through three separate laws. The government fears the media,” Mahbubur Rahman, a member of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party’s standing committee, told BenarNews.


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