On 6 September, Chrono Satellite Broadcast (CSB), Bangladesh’s only private 24-hour news channel (which launched just this past March) was suddenly forced to shut down by the government. Days earlier, the station’s managers had been warned not to broadcast footage of the pro-democracy riots that were wracking the country. Officials from the country’s Telecom Regulatory Commission claimed that there were irregularities in the allocation of the station’s broadcast frequency, but if this were merely an issue of a not-so-kosher license, why turn up with a Rapid Action Battalion squad? The official explanation lacks further credibility given that, on 23 August, the interim government had served notices cautioning CSB, as well as the private Ekushey TV, for “breaching emergency rules”. This supposed breach took place when the channels aired footage of student agitations in Dhaka University and other pro-democracy riots. In a statement, the Press Information Department said the two stations had aired “provocative news, video footage and talk shows against the government”. Aha – now we know why!
For Bangladeshi authorities, religion is no laughing matter. Arifur Rahman, a cartoonist with Aalpin, the daily newspaper Prothom Alo’s weekly satirical supplement, was arrested on 17 September over a cartoon that included a play on the name Mohammed. Entitled “Name”, the cartoon took a swipe at the custom in Muslim countries of prefixing every name with ‘Mohammed’ – including, evidently, that of a cat. Not amused, the government’s press department said the cartoon “hurt religious sentiments”, and seized all copies of the supplement. Religious leaders are up in arms – baying for the cartoonist’s blood, and demanding that Prothom Alo be shut down. Copies of the newspaper have been burned outside one of the capital’s mosques (pic). Chhetria Patrakar is sad to say that Prothom Alo felt compelled to apologise, and even fired the Aalpin’s deputy editor. I says somethign about the situaion in Bangladesh, and of the media’s strength.
Troubles continue for Tibetan monk and writer Rinchen Sangpo, who has been harassed ever since his release without charge in August 2006 following a month’s detention. Sangpo’s critical writings (most recently two unpublished works entitled “The Story of Blood” and “The Story of Lhasa”) appear to have caused the Lhasa authorities much discomfort. He was arrested again in April of this year in Amdo Golak, while on his way to a festival. He was held for five days in various police stations, where he claims to have been tortured. The 33-year-old writer, the editor of the periodical Tune of Shachi River, has been known to the Chinese authorities since 2004, when his work No Retreating Path was recalled by the Chinese authorities shortly after its publication, deeming it to be “political” (as if there’s anything wrong with that). Sangpo is currently unable to return to his base at Drepung Monastery, long known for its political dissent, due to fears for his safety.
Along with some pro-democracy activists in Burma, in early September several journalists, including two from Agence France-Presse, suddenly found their mobile phones had gone dead. Just prior, Directorate of Military Engineers officials had paid a visit to the country’s main national telecommunication complex. This seems to be just one in a series of actions by the Burmese junta in attempting to contain the growing popular protests, which began on 19 August and have subsequently swept the country. But the truth, as they say, is out there, regardless of junta anxieties. For excellent video coverage and day-by-day print reports about the protests, turn to any one of the several Burmese exile-run publications, including Mizzima News and Irrawaddy. CP has also been mesmerised in recent weeks by video clips of the protests posted on the popular video-sharing site, Youtube.
As if the hoopla in India regarding the mythical Ram Sethu bridge across to Sri Lanka were not enough, we now have honourable judges talking about a laxman rekha – the limit of which, apparently, had been crossed by four journalists from the Delhi city daily Mid-Day. Their crime: criticising former Chief Justice of India Y K Sabharwal’s (pic) judgements on sealing commercial buildings in the capital. City editor M K Tayal, then-publisher S K Akhtar, resident editor Vitusha Oberoi, and cartoonist Irfan Khan were all sentenced to four-month jail terms for contempt of court. Mid-Day stood by its reports of Sabharwal’s corruption, however. But truth, unfortunately, is not a defence for contempt of court. More important, we are told, the issue here is not a matter of a single judge, but rather the image of the entire judiciary – which, we are to believe from this episode, is very fragile indeed. Personalities like Romila Thapar, Aruna Roy and Medha Patkar have all come out in support of Mid-Day, calling for “an immediate stop to the misuse of contempt-of-court proceedings to curtail [press] freedom.” Good going, ladies!
Amidst the hullabaloo over Mid-Day, Chhetria Patrakar was taken aback to find out that, over in Sri Lanka, Indian contempt law was being regarded as a model to be imitated. In addition to demands for reform, a press release on 6 September – jointly issued by an impressive line-up: the Free Media Movement, Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka, Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum, Federation of Media Employees Trade Union, Tamil Media Alliance, SAFMA Sri Lanka Chapter and the Sri Lanka Press Institute – urged the revival of the All Party Lakshman Kadirgamar Parliamentary Select Committee, with a view to bringing in a contempt-of-court act along the lines of what is used in the UK – and India. Given the frustrations being experienced by so many others, Sri Lankans should, perhaps, put their heads together and come up with their own definitions of ‘contempt of court’.
On the subject of media autonomy, isn’t it time to assess ‘media development’ in Afghanistan, as funded by the US government? The US’s foreign-aid agency, USAID, says it supports media development in Afghanistan in order to “promote the free exchange of information and ideas vital to the democratic process and development of civil society”. As such, it is funding a network of radio and TV stations, as well as conducting training programmes for journalists. According the website, “USAID has produced independent, national radio programming emphasizing nation-building and national unity that is broadcast via satellite to 34 radio stations.” How independent, exactly? And, while we’re on the issue, just how ‘national’? Can a foreign country so enmeshed in Afghan affairs be indepenent, and be seen to be independent in promoting something as sensitive as media freedom?
It generally pays to up the ante in India. After broadcasters and other ‘stakeholders’ (as interested parties are wont to be called these days) clamoured for more debate on the proposed Broadcast Bill, New Delhi bowed to the pressure and agreed not to table the controversial legislation during the Parliament’s monsoon session. Contentious issues include: cross-media ownership, the cap on foreign investment, autonomy of the proposed regulatory body, and a controversial “content code”. Self-regulation by the media is undoubtedly preferable to shabbily drafted codes churned out by babus at Mandi House (pic). Doubly so in the current context, what with fake sting operations (like the one by Live India TV, which supposedly ‘exposed’ the involvement of a schoolteacher in a prostitution racket) making all investigative journalists cringe. Whatever is the real story behind those young girls and their teacher has been lost amidst the clouds of outrage against the offending journalist.
Nepal is rightly famous for having let localised FM radio explode onto the scene, and for allowing news and discussions free play, even as bureaucrats and politicians elsewhere have been dragging their feet. The Nepali radio revolution picked up steam even while the Maoists were engaged in their ‘people’s war’. But suddenly, as ‘identity wars’ pick up in the hills and plains, the lack of training and circumspection of many a radio journalist becomes clear. Poor reporting has the potential to inject incendiary elements into a polarised ‘communal’ situation. Local militants can threaten local stations into airing inappropriate material. And all this has begun to happen in Nepal’s hills and plains, enough to concern observers. Obviously there is a need for some soul-searching in midstream, so that radio in Nepal continues as a triumphant model for others.
~ Chhetria Patrakar