Since the fall of the military dictator HM Ershad in the early nineties, Bangladesh has largely been a democracy. Two democratically elected political parties have mostly governed the country ever since.
Apart from the restoration of an electoral system, another highly-anticipated development in the post-Ershad era was the annulment of multiple articles of the “Special Powers Act” that eased press restrictions to a large extent, resulting in what was dubbed by many as the “mushroom growth” of media houses.
After Khaleda Zia's BNP formed the government in 1991 Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed, largely perceived as a courageous statesman during his two terms as president of the country (one with executive power), went back to the judiciary to resume his role as chief justice. With a democratically elected government, a courageous judiciary, and a booming media industry, one couldn't think of a better restart.
Political environment back then was vibrant, to say the least, with a dynamic opposition camp that constantly kept the government in check. Most importantly, the ruling party didn't have the absolute majority in parliament, which kept it from being too wayward because of its dependence on the support of the opposition parties to make constitutional amendments. Politicians back then were also less confrontational.
Now, more than two and a half decades later, our politics is in complete disarray, with the real opposition being almost non-existent. The integrity of all vital institutions is in decline. Temporarily, a precarious stability, mainly due to the absence of street politics, appears to support the economic growth. In reality, a tiny crack in this “stability” may have grave consequences. The Gulshan terror attack, for example, had a much bigger impact on the garments industry than initially anticipated.
Society, most importantly, is more polarised than ever before. Like the politicians who deeply distrust each other, people are now also divided across the politico-ideological spectrum. Unfortunately, this polarity has also gripped our press. Journalism, which requires its professionals to be impartial and objective, is plagued with a brazenly partisan culture that fails to hold those in power responsible and accepts the official narrative as gospel truth.
Against this backdrop, something interesting has happened recently. The Supreme Court has given a 799-page judgement that upheld the HC verdict declaring the 16th amendment to the Constitution illegal. The verdict has been hailed by independent analysts as historic but the court's observations on the existing political climate in Bangladesh infuriated the ruling party, which unleashed a concerted campaign against what it deems “irrelevant opinion” of the chief justice to play down the judgement.
All the while, another important case is impending in the apex court about whether the executive officers can run mobile courts. It involves the separation of the judiciary from the influence of the executive branch of the government.
Both cases have triggered fierce debates about whether the apex court can overturn decisions by the parliament's two-third majority, and whether the judiciary is fully separated from the executive branch.
Professor Shakhawat Ali Khan, a veteran professor of journalism, has recently told a private audience that while everyone seems to be obsessed with the power battle within the three branches of the state (i.e. parliamentary, judiciary and executive), the role of the press as the fourth estate of the state remains largely unaddressed in public discourse. While everyone in their respective branch is fully aware of what's at stake, the journalistic community, however, seems little concerned about their deserved place in democracy.
“The biggest thing that saddens me about Bangladesh is the lack of solidarity in the press for the press,” observed Irene Khan, the former Amnesty International chief. In other words, the media men have failed to stand in solidarity with their fellow targeted professionals simply because of political differences.
One could remember that when the Barack Obama administration in the US excluded Fox News in a round of interviews, other media outlets—including rival institutions—vehemently opposed the move and eventually got the decision reversed. Fox News reciprocated the favour when the Donald Trump administration barred journalists of many prominent outlets in the White House press briefings. That's how solidarity beyond competition and political ideology within the press helps it to become a pillar so distinctive that it can challenge the remaining three estates of a state.
The avenues of expressing solidarity are limited because individuals aligned with the establishment take over journalistic organisations. When journalistic bodies abandon the basic practice of democracy themselves, how can one expect the press to be a pillar of democracy?
The press must have its own identity well beyond political divide. A journalist must not abdicate his or her credibility as an objective and impartial newsperson by political or other preference. If the collective journalistic sense beyond the border of personal belief and interest doesn't develop, the press will never become what it aspires to be.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.