June 14, 2007

A Responsible Media

It is the duty of a responsible media to provide people with all the information they need to judge their political representatives. They discharge this duty best when they exercise a healthy skepticism of political authority.

But it must be skeptical on a case-per-case, issue-by-issue basis. This means that even if they are supportive - nay, absolutely captivated - by any one government policy (say.... I dunno.... arresting corrupt people regardless of how powerful they are), they must not stop questioning the government on all other policies, such as leaking vital interrogation information.

Now I'm pretty sure you all know what I'm talking about. Recently the detailed testimony of remanded politicians was brought into the limelight by the media. Audio recordings of their testimony is available online, and a vibrant debate on the ethics of leaking these to the press is taking place, as usual, on Drishtipat.

And that's the problem. The debate is taking place on DP, not the media. The media itself is too ecstatic at being made privy to secret conversations to question the WHY of it. There are several issues at stake here:

One, whether the information should have been published at all. When it was being made available, there was no good reason for the media to censor itself. They have not.

Two, whether the media should not question, in print not personally, the motives behind such a leak. The media have not. Usually, leaks from the authorities incriminate themselves. In which case, the media has a case for reliance on leaks. In this case, the leak is incriminating third-parties over which the authorities have sway, ie. citizens (albeit powerful, corrupt citizens). Essentially, by publishing these leaks without questioning their method and motive, respected media outlets such as Prothom Alo are turning into mouthpieces for those NOW in authority.

Why is this important? Because it essentially means that the media is failing us. Once most of us catch on to this fact, we will lose trust in the media. It will take ages for them to win back our trust. In the meantime, those in authority will keep doing their thing and the watchdog will keep barking. But the people will not listen. That's the vicious cycle of corruption. That is why ordinary people could dismiss tales of BNP or AL corruption citing mistrust in the media. That is why these confessions are possible in the first place. The watchdog barked, but no one listened.

That is however still a long way away. For now, let's inspect the current mood. Already on DP someone has said:

"When people (except a film maker) watch the movie they are not interest in finding the film making or releasing process; they just want to know the story of the movie. Similarly if someone tries to pursue us to focus on making and release processing of the interrogation tape, then sorry, I will not be convinced as I really don’t need to know how the tape has been released. All I am concern about the truth of the tape story; truth about our political leaders injusticeness towards the general people, truth about their depravity; truth about how they swindled with 150 million people and looted tax payers money"

Which is pretty much what the Prothom Alo staff and the average woman on the street is thinking. I love the analogy, that of the movies. Leaving aside the irony of comparing allegedly edited (if not scripted) confessions to movies, the analogy speaks volumes about our national mindset. Dhaliwood movies are known for their caricatures rather than their characters. Heroes are angels, villains are devils. Having assigned the CTG to the hero role, can it do ANY wrong? The heroism of the hero and the villainy of the villains is the entire story. If the hero is acting improperly, that by definition cannot be the story can it? That must be the film-maker's fault. Probably forgot to say cut.

More seriously, if tomorrow I published "leaks" by either Mr. Motiur Rahman, editor of PA, or the author of the above comment in which they confessed to stealing millions and besmirched their reputations, perhaps they would be more interested in the ethics of HOW the news is being made and HOW they're getting the news instead of the news itself. But that's just a guess. Given their stances, they just might decide to embrace their fate and remain quiet. So stay tuned folks: I want to feel the rush of screwing over those who do not care about ethics. Unethically.

This is not to suggest that our politicians themselves have been the paragons of following due process and upholding press freedom. FAR from it. It would be nice though if they could be taped promising that they would never do to ordinary citizens what is being done to them now, and then hold them to those promises. Now THAT would be a systemic change. And if you're shuddering after reading the last two paragraphs, my apologies: there's a little fascist inside me waiting for a populist mandate!

Coming back to our media, it is by no means along or unique in being used by the government. The American media pretty much abdicated its world-famous watchdog role when in the prelude to the Second Gulf War, it was invited to embed itself with the military and be bedded by the democratically elected American government.

Needless to say, after all such romantic trysts entered with guilty consciences, recriminations are flying and a period of serious self-examination is being undertaken by at least one party. But they're talking about it louder and louder, especially in the wake of the Valerie Plame affair. Journalist Robert Novak who revealed Plame's identity as a covert CIA agent (which he learnt from a White House leak designed to discredit Plame's husband) has instigated the most interesting debate I know about the relationship between a country's government and its media. He has also had the honour of being labelled "a douchebag of liberty" by Jon Stewart.

Part of the problem is that our media is nowhere near as old and invested with informal traditions as the American one is. The other is that it takes things very personally, which is not altogether its fault. This leads to what Nowhere in the Middle aptly calls their "gotcha spirit", in which they go after individuals instead of issues. To give you some straight advice, Mr. Rahman and the rest of PA: hate the game, not the playa'!


M said...

Important topic, excellent points as usual. I loved the term "gotcha spirit" -- so aptly put.

To be fair to PA and M Rahman though, I would say even today PA remains relatively more responsible in the Bangladeshi context. I am not defending it by any means, but I can name a lot of older papers that have done less justice to responsible reporting.

One irrelevant, asinine thought, bro -- I hope you've obtained relevant permissions before uploading the photos that you have onto blogger? The irony otherwise would be quite palpable ;).

asif said...

Hey man,

I just confessed to being a closet fascist on this blog! Copyrights are the least of my worries right now. :D

More seriously, I really hadn't given much thought to that at all. Do you (or anyone) know the relevant laws or Blogger's own rules?

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