Overall, the country’s newspaper industry is going through a big crisis and has become a struggling industry now. However, this sector is burdened with different types of taxes. Again, despite being declared as an industry, this sector is denied incentives that are entitled to an industry.

So the various taxes imposed on newspapers have to be revoked or reduced in the upcoming budget to solve these issues. Besides, newspapers have to be freed from legal restrictions as well.

Newspaper owners, editors, journalist leaders, businesspersons, economists, teachers and representatives of civil society made these observations at a roundtable organised by Newspaper Owners’ Association of Bangladesh (NOAB).

The roundtable, ‘Upcoming Budget: Problems and Crisis of Newspaper Industries’ was held at a city hotel on Monday. Almost everyone in the event unanimously recognised the crisis presented on behalf of NOAB and called for initiatives on government’s part for the solution.

The roundtable presided over by NOAB president AK Azad, was moderated by Dewan Hanif Mahmud, editor of Bonik Barta and a member of NOAB.

AK Azad said the newspaper industry is an exceptional service industry. This industry has long been plagued with problems. The Ukraine-Russia war has doubled the price of paper, whereas premium quality paper has to be imported from countries like Russia and Korea.

He said, the printing cost of a 10 taka daily is several times higher than the price. Out of that, 4 taka goes to the hawkers while the owners get 6 taka. Advertisement and circulation are the main revenue generating sources of a newspaper. That income decreased after the corona outbreak.

Meanwhile, tax is levied on the revenue derived from advertisements. Again, advertisement bills worth Tk 1 billion owed by the government, remain outstanding, he added.

Highlighting various aspects of the newspaper industry, Prothom Alo editor Matiur Rahman said, journalist community has played a significant role in every advancement of the country up until now. Newspapers have been publishing opinions, comments or news about some shortcomings and problems of the society, state and the government. This sector is in great trouble now.

Highlighting the current critical situation, he said newsprint, sold at USD 570 per tonne just about one and a half years ago, is now being sold at USD 1,050. The country’s newspaper industry has become weak. However, no government facilities or aid could be availed as a struggling service industry.

Even, when different industries received many types of stimuli during and after the corona outbreak, no assistance was rendered to newspapers and there were no such attempts either. He demanded withdrawal or reduction of different sorts of imposed tax in the face of this crisis.

Monjurul Ahsan Bulbul, former president of Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists (BFUJ) said, there are 26 laws related to freedom of expression in the country while four more are being enacted. Of them, the right to information act is comparatively better.

He also said, the said circulation number of newspapers, published from Dhaka is highly deceptive. And a class of people is using the media as a tool.

Asif Nazrul, professor of law at the University of Dhaka said, many government-imposed regulations can be noticed in generating revenue through advertisement as well. Some companies are discouraged from advertising. And in cases of government advertisements, strange data about the circulation number is provided. Plus, the bills are left unpaid.

It seems it is the government’s undeclared policy that there should be no ownership of newspapers, except the ones who have made billions in dishonest ways, by grabbing land or misappropriating project funds, he added.

Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir, professor at the department of development studies of Dhaka University commented that newspapers are a public good. If there could be allocation for education and health sectors, there could be assistance entitled to newspapers as well.

As the issue of tax is monitored by National Board of Revenue (NBR), there could be a separate tax structure for those who pay their employees according to the wage board. For example, newspapers that follow the wage board can get zero-tax facility on the import of raw material.

Omar Faruque, president of a faction of BFUJ said, the Department of Films and Publication (DFP) works based on lies. They raise the circulation and advertisement rates and shows 200 thousand circulation for papers that does not even have a circulation of 200, in exchange of money. It is beyond imagination that there could be so many phony companies.

M Abdullah, president of another faction of BFUJ said, although demands for solution to the problems of the newspaper industry are being raised, they are not being fulfilled. It all seems useless. Even if there’s an overdue government advertisement bill of Tk 1 billion, it is kept due intentionally to keep the newspapers under pressure.

Mostofa Azad Chowdhury, senior vice-president of Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI) said at the time, all the industries that fell into a crisis because of Covid-19, received assistance from the government. The newspaper industry should get it too.

Anwar-ul Alam Chowdhury, president of Bangladesh Chamber of Industries (BCI), said, newspapers play a crucial role in creating human values, forming an image of the country and inspiring people into dreaming. As the newspaper is an industry, this industry has to be saved and made powerful, he added.

Ittefaq editor Tasmima Hossain said, as the fourth pillar of the state, newspapers have been functioning like the opposition party. Newspapers as per their capability, are working on the humanitarian responsibilities or necessities that are being neglected on behalf of the state. She believes the obligations of the newspaper to be much higher.

Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) commented, it is as if it has become compulsory for the government to regulate the “democratic space”. "We are moving towards the surveillance society now."

He added, it is time for newspapers to move away from the conventional business model because major parts of the advertisements are switching to the digital media.

Bangladesh Press Council chairman Md Nizamul Haque said, a lot of newspapers can be seen going to the district towns but none of them are regularly published. That means, owners, editors and journalists of those newspapers are introducing themselves in the society by those identities. Plus, they are trying to earn a little extra money using those identities “differently”. These should be stopped.

Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam said in his speech, “My question is why there are so many laws for the media? There is no act that helps journalism to flourish or it protect it. Again, these laws are being made and enacted with a bureaucratic point of view. Bureaucrats will never want the expansion of free press.”

He further questioned, how many acts are there against people who smuggle, supply adulterated goods in the market and indulge in unethical activities in the name of trade?