Prothom Alo: What is the present state of journalism?
Mahfuz Anam: Journalism is facing a serious challenge at present. Globally speaking, the independence of journalism is being challenged. For example, America is known for its press freedom. Its First Amendment ensures freedom of the press. Yet in that country now the president castigates the media at every chance. He dismisses anything against him as fake news. He openly has termed journalists as the lowest form of life. That is how journalism and journalists are being demeaned. Other countries in the west were also examples of press freedom that inspired developing countries like ours, but now journalism is facing challenges there too.
Prothom Alo: But the media has always faced a challenge, in varying degrees, from those at the helm of power.
Mahfuz Anam: Yes, but now stringent laws are being enacted in various countries to curb press freedom. That is a global trend.
Journalism is facing another challenge and this is by the extensive spread of digital technology. The social media opens up all sorts of channels of news for the readers. The reader no longer depends on newspapers, television or the radio for news. They get any news immediately through the social media and can post their reactions immediately too. This was not so in the case of the newspapers. You would have to write a letter to the editor and couldn’t be sure if or when it would be printed. Now all you need is a smartphone to post your comments and this will be read by innumerable people. Never before has there been such an open space for the general public to express themselves freely anywhere in the world.
Prothom Alo: Why do you see this as a challenge to journalism?
Mahfuz Anam: The reach of a newspaper or a TV channel or an online news portal is limited. There has never been in the history of mankind such an extensive independent means for the general public to exchange information and express themselves.
Prothom Alo: But citizens cannot be an alternative to professional journalists.
Mahfuz Anam: The weakest point of the social media is that the credibility of the news provided there is not ascertained. It is not edited. Anyone can say whatever they want. They can fabricate news, they can get people into trouble. Social media is even being used to instigate social unrest as we saw recently in Bhola and also, not too long ago, in Ramu.
Prothom Alo: So social media lacks the responsibility of professional journalism.
Mahfuz Anam: In comparison to its independence and extensive reach, social media lacks responsibility. It does not have any editorial control. So this medium lacks credibility. The people are not sure whether the news is true or fake.
Prothom Alo: Fake news is not just spread by individuals, but intentionally also spread by organised groups.
Mahfuz Anam: There was a lot of debate and even investigations about whether the Russians had used the social media to influence the American elections in 2016. The Americans firmly believe that the Russians had a role to play so even the state has entered the scene. That is why people’s faith in the traditional media is being restored. They don’t blindly believe anything on Facebook, but turn to the responsible media organisations to verify the news. They turn to Prothom Alo or the Daily Star or any other reliable news outlet. Millions of people use social media. In comparison, the reach of traditional news media is very limited. But social media suffers from a credibility crisis.
Prothom Alo: Do you see this as an opportunity for professional journalism?
Mahfuz Anam: A huge opportunity. If we continue to practice proper journalism to strengthen the confidence of our audience, then no matter how extensive social media may be, the people will always come back to us.
Prothom Alo: You spoke of political and technological challenges to media on a global level. Are there any other challenges?
Mahfuz Anam: The third challenge, globally, is the digital security laws being adopted by many countries in face of the misuse of social media. To the apparent eye this may seem necessary to control incidents like that of Bhola and Ramu, and other similar incidents in other countries, but governments in many countries are using this to enact and implement extremely stringent laws. This is a serious obstacle to free press. Recently in Australia, all newspapers there kept their first page blank in protest against such a law. So there is political pressure against the press and, taking advantage of the misuse of the social media, stern laws are being used to control the media in general.
Prothom Alo: Coming to Bangladesh, what s the state of the media here?
Mahfuz Anam: We face all the challenges that I have mentioned globally, but our political leaders haven’t blackened us in the manner that Trump has done to the media there. Our challenge is the laws drawn up to control the digital media. These are extremely detrimental to freedom of the press. On behalf of the civil society and the editors’ council, we have strongly protested against the digital security act. Even if the government doesn’t apply the law, its very existence dampens the journalist’s spirit. This act has 19 types of punishable crimes, of which 16 are non-bailable. So if charges are brought against a journalist, he or she will have to spend six months to a year in jail even before the trial begins. If a journalist has that in mind, how can he or she go about their duties freely? And even if no crime is committed, if a police officer feels that a certain media house may pose as a threat, they can simply confiscate the computers and other equipment of that media house.
Prothom Alo: Defamation suits are most common against the media in Bangladesh.
Mahfuz Anam: Yes. This was there before too, but not quite so extensive. These defamation cases can be filed with the criminal court or with the civil court. When a member of the general public wants to file a defamation case against the media, the court may not accept it. But if an influential person approaches the court with such a case, it is taken up in the criminal court and an arrest warrant is immediately issued.
It is also clearly stated that only the injured party can file such a case, no one else, but here the person’s well-wishers, supporters, friends, followers, everyone files charges and the case is even accepted. The magistrate is empowered by the law not to accept such cases, but they do. So there are up to even 20 cases for the same single complaint. I have faced 84 cases. The law says that there cannot be more than one case in a defamation suit, so how can there be multiple cases? But that happens in our country.
Defamation cases against the media have taken on horrendous proportions in the country. The digital security act and the defamation laws have created an environment of fear for the media. Self-censorship has stepped up and we don’t publish most of the news we get.
Prothom Alo: How far has digital technology had an impact on Bangladesh’s media?
Mahfuz Anam: It has had a huge impact. Digitalisation is drawing the advertisers more and more to the digital media. This is a global phenomenon. This has hit the print media’s business model hard. In many countries around the world, reputed media houses have shut down the print versions of their newspapers and simply remain online. Television viewers have fallen drastically in number too. Journalism is going through critical times as a whole. There is political, technological and business pressure looming large.
Prothom Alo: What is the way forward?
Mahfuz Anam: There is huge opportunity tucked away inside this huge challenge. We must uphold ethical journalism. The people do not have confidence in social media and if this lack of confidence enters professional journalism, we will have no future. So we must not only maintain our credibility, but strengthen it further. We must stay firm in our position as credible news providers. If we can do so, the people will come back to us for genuine news. Professional journalism will prove to have no substitute.
Prothom Alo: Would you like to say anything on the occasion of Prothom Alo’s 21st anniversary on 4 November?
Mahfuz Anam: Prothom Alo has brought a radical change to journalism in Bangladesh. It has been a model of success. Prothom Alo is the top newspaper in Bangladesh, I would say, and that is not simply because of its number of readers, but in the quality of its journalism. I offer my felicitations to the editor Matiur Rahman and all at Prothom Alo.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.
Mahfuz Anam: Thank you.
*This interview, originally published in Prothom Alo print edition, has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.