Dhaka, Bangladesh – Bangladesh’s main opposition party has held protest in the capital, Dhaka, calling for the repeal of a new broadcast policy that critics say would curb the freedom of the media.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) has dubbed the National Broadcasting Policy – passed by the cabinet earlier this month – as “regressive and intended to gag the media”.
The new broadcast policy sets to regulate the country’s radio and television stations and proposes the establishment of an independent broadcasting commission.
“The policy allows the government to control the media through a legal framework which is very undemocratic,” Shamsher Mobin Chowdhury, the party’s vice-chairman, told Al Jazeera.
The policy allows the government to control the media through a legal framework which is very undemocratic
“In a free and democratic country, a policy of this nature is certainly not called for. We think it is very negative and should immediately be cancelled. Freedom of expression should be unhindered.”
The policy states that TV and radio stations should not broadcast news which is “contrary to the country’s or the public interest”, programmes which “undermine the reputation” of military or law enforcement officers or information which “can harm good relationships” with a friendly country.
Despite rain, thousands of opposition supporters, many using their protest placards as umbrellas, listened to speeches by the party leaders who argued that the new broadcast policy represented further moves towards a one-party state.
The BNP, the largest opposition party, has no seats in the current parliament as it had boycotted the January national elections alleging that the ruling Awami League party would rig the vote.
Toshibul, a 20-year-old student at Dhaka University, said he had come to support the BNP. “The broadcast policy must be stopped, and if the BNP comes to power I believe they will repeal it,” he said.
Standing in the muddy field of Suhrawardy Udyan where the rally took place, Advocate F Islam Chandan said: “The government is in power without a popular vote. All we want is a proper election with everyone voting. The broadcast policy is trying to prevent this happening.”
Restraining media freedom?
The government has however, stated that the provisions within the policy are only a “guideline”.
At a press conference given a week ago, the Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu stated that the policy was “not a law and it does not have any provision for punishment. The claim that the policy intends to strangle the media is completely baseless and imaginary”.
|Leaders argued that the new broadcast policy represented further moves towards a one-party state [David Bergman/ Al Jazeera]|
However, members of civil society and journalist organisations have also aired their concerns at the new policy.
“The interpretation of some of the provisions may lead to serious restraint on media freedom,” Iftekharuzzaman, the executive director of Transparency International in Bangladesh, said. “What is in the ‘public interest’ and in the ‘interest of the country’ can be subjectively interpreted.”
“The provision [in the policy] involving the restriction of news on the police and military officers also could provide them a kind of blanket immunity from criticism.”
Tahmina Rahman, the Bangladesh and South Asia director of Article 19, an organisation which campaigns on the freedom of the media, said that she supported the introduction of the policy with its proposed establishment of an independent commission that would regulate the television and radio sectors, but criticised the long list of “dos” and “donts”.
“This part of the policy does not meet international standards,” she said. “This should not be part of the policy. Any guidance on content should be drafted by the independent commission after it has been established and in consultation with the industry and others.”
Manjurul Ahsan Bulbul, the President of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalist, who works as chief editor of the private TV station Boishakhi said that he had proposed in writing to the government that the policy itself should not contain any guidelines on content, but his ideas were ignored in the final draft.
The Awami League, which has been in power since 2009, has closed down three television stations, including Islamic Television and Diganta Television, over their coverage of a deadly government crackdown in May last year. It also stopped the publication of the pro-opposition newspaper Amar Desh.
When it was last in power, the BNP shut down the private station Ekushey Television.
Follow David Bergman on Twitter: @davidbangladesh