Double whammy puts Bangladesh media in deep crisis

The media and newspaper industry in Bangladesh face two major challenges: First, economical challenges, and second, the repression by the government that has stifled the freedom of expression and has made various attempts to silence critical coverage, writes Mohammad Kepayet for South Asia Monitor

Mohammad Kepayet Jul 28, 2020
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The mass media in Bangladesh is going through the worst time in history. On the one hand, the pandemic is raging; on the other hand, the controversial Digital Security Act (DSA) is raising concerns about free speech in the South Asian nation. It could not be a worse time for the once-vibrant Bangladesh media industry.

The newspaper industry in Bangladesh is facing serious trouble in both reaching the readers and continuing publishing its print editions in the prevailing coronavirus situation. No wonder that the publication of around eight to nine mainstream national dailies in Dhaka has been suspended, while some will shut down soon. Several magazines have closed their print editions. This phenomenon may not be only limited to Bangladesh alone. It is seen all over the globe and is due to the spread of COVID-19.

Newspaper business badly hit

Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that newspapers are not transmitters of COVID-19, but many people in Dhaka have stopped buying outside products, including newspapers. And that has greatly affected the business of newspaper publishing. Newspaper sales in the capital fell by an average of 60 percent in July.

According to the Department of Films and Publications or DFP, as many as 706 newspapers are published in Bangladesh now, 365 of them from Dhaka alone. For the newspaper industry, the source of income is advertisements. The financial crisis due to the lockdown led to big financial companies not giving any advertisements to newspapers. The drop in advertisement impacted the business badly, leading to many to close down their print editions. The fall in circulation broke the camel’s back.

But it is also true that some media owners are taking advantage of the pandemic. Some journalists have been forced to take a cut in salaries, while some have been asked to take unpaid leave and some have been fired.

Another alarming thing is the shutting down of 275 newspapers across the country. According to the findings of a survey of the Bangladesh Independent Journalists Network (BIJN), at least 275 out of 456 local newspapers (60.31 percent), published from different parts of Bangladesh, have shut down, a fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 18 local newspapers are published only when they are able to manage money for publishing it or on receiving the advertisement. Almost all local newspapers have gone out of circulation and this happened soon after the COVID-19 outbreak began in March, the survey revealed. The survey also added that less than half of those newspapers later managed to resume circulation, including some which are no longer published regularly.

The financial crisis emerging from the pandemic situation has been termed as the main reason behind shutting down so many local newspapers. The survey was conducted between June 23 and July 2 on 456 local daily and weekly newspapers, which used to be published from 34 districts under Dhaka, Rajshahi, Khulna, Rangpur, Barishal, and Sylhet divisions.

Over 1,600 journalists have become unemployed because of the shutdowns and there were an average of six journalists at each media house, the survey said.

In the survey, BIJN has highlighted some of its observations. These are: The closure and irregularity of a large number of newspapers at the local level have severely disrupted the media coverage of the people. The lack of accountability, transparency, and balance in the performance of the responsibilities of the local administration and local representatives at various levels has been severely damaged. As a result, there is a huge potential for multidimensional authoritarianism.
 
The distance between the administration and the state structure has increased. Freedom of the press and the continued weakness of independent expression will become narrower and weaker. That is the great loss for the whole democratic system and structure.
 
Draconian Digital Security Act

In such a situation, the government should increase support for the media. But the government did not do that but instead increased repression. The media and newspaper industry in Bangladesh face two major challenges: First, economical challenges, and second, the repression by the government that has stifled the freedom of expression and has made various attempts to silence critical coverage. The government is behaving in a very authoritarian manner and is trying to muzzle the media.

The Digital Security Act, which came into effect in 2018, is a controversial law that has been described as draconian by the Bangladesh media.  Nearly 60 cases have been filed against more than 100 people, including 22 journalists, under the DSA this year until May 6, according to a study by Article 19, a UK-based human rights body. Most of these arrests are based on social media posts critical of the government and it's dealing with the coronavirus pandemic.

Under the Act, police have the power to arrest journalists and confiscate their equipment without a court order, carry out searches without a warrant, ask service providers and other intermediaries for data without requiring a court-obtained warrant or subpoena and places a 60-day window on the investigation.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) recently released its World Press Freedom Index 2020. According to the RSF report, Bangladesh was placed 151 out of 180 countries.  In South Asia, Bangladesh ranked the worst in its ratings. It was worse than war-ravaged Afghanistan, which was placed at 122, Pakistan (145), India (142), Sri Lanka (127), Nepal 112, Bhutan (67), and Maldives (79).

Bangladesh has been ranking low in the index for the past five years. In 2019, Bangladesh ranked 150; in 2018 it was 146; in 2016 it was 144.

Meanwhile, on July 20,  the US State Department said that Bangladesh should ensure a free and independent media during the coronavirus pandemic. Concerning Bangladesh, it said, “The State Department has emphasized the need for a free and independent media as the government uses the Digital Security Act to charge and arrest journalists, cartoonists, doctors, academics and other individuals who have critiqued the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

(The writer is a journalist and South Asian geopolitical analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at kepayet01mcj@gmail.com)

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