Media freedom and accountability: Balancing twin objectives

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Photo: UNB

Information Minister Dr Hasan Mahmud has said the time has come to think globally and work together on how to deal with fake news and rumours on social media platforms through establishing an 'Internet Ombudsman' as freedom of media and accountability is equally important.

"We need to discuss it deeply. Together, we'll work out how the unedited platforms (social media platforms) can be brought under rules and regulations," he said, adding that the government will take a decision in consultation with stakeholders in the media industry.

The Information Minister made the remark while addressing as the chief guest the Annual District Correspondents' Conference 2019 of leading newsagency United News of Bangladesh (UNB) at its head office in the city.

As UNB Editor-in-Chief Enayetullah Khan proposed establishing an Internet Ombudsman, the minister supported it saying there are some rules and regulations; and technologies which are not adequate to deal with rumours and fake news.

Stating that anybody can spread rumours from abroad using any ID, the Information Minister said it needs to be discussed globally when it comes to creation of an Internet Ombudsman in Bangladesh to deal with rumours and fake news on social media platforms.

He said the government wants to take Bangladesh's media freedom to a level of Europe, continental Europe and the United Kingdom; and at the same time, the government wants to see accountability at the same level as seen in Europe and the UK.

"State, society and everybody will be benefited if we see synchronisation between media freedom and accountability," Hasan Mahmud said.

The Information Minister said the internet has opened a wider window for all though the social media network has emerged as a big platform for spreading rumours and character assassination of anyone. "Now, Bangladesh has around 8 crore internet users which was 8 lakh in 2008."

He said the government is working to implement the 9th wage board for journalists.

UNB Chairman Amanullah Khan, former Vice-Chancellor of Dhaka University Prof AAMS Arefin Siddique, Honorary Professor of its Mass Communication and Journalism Department Dr Shakhawat Ali Khan, Additional Press Secretary to the Prime Minister's Office Nazrul Islam and Deputy Head of Corporate and Compliance Affairs of Cosmos Group Rumessa Mailloux spoke at the programme. Online Editor of Channel i Zahed Newaz Khan was also present.

Some 100 UNB journalists from across the country attended the conference.

Prof Arefin said as a teacher of journalism it pains him and shames him to discuss 'fake news' in the 21st century, even after the world had relied on the truth.

"News can't be fake in any way as it always represents the truth. It's the responsibility of journalists to look for truth and present it objectively and accurately," he said.

Dr Arefin, also a professor of Dhaka University's Mass Communication and Journalism department, said information is as powerful as a nuclear bomb. "So, disinformation can badly affect society, country and the entire world."

He observed that fake and fabricated information are being circulated through the social media taking advantage of the absence of an editing system. "Such disinformation and fake news can create instability in the country and society".

Dr Arefin said journalists must cultivate skepticism and present any information to readers after verifying the sources to separate fact from fiction.

He urged the journalists to play their role with social commitment by highlighting social problems with objective and accurate information. "There's no alternative to truth in making news stories. Fake is always fake and it can't be news. I hope journalists will work as soldiers of truth maintaining objectivity, neutrality, accuracy and professional ethics."

Prof Shakhawat said, "Though social media can't ensure authenticity, it's fact that we're now getting breaking news first from this platform instead of mainstream media. Under the circumstances, it's very crucial to make social media responsible to check baseless and fake information."

He urged the journalists not to be misguided by rumours, and to avoid filing news based on rumours. "Rather you can make stories on the reasons and sources of the rumours."

Prof Shakhawat also focused on working neutrally rising above political belief and ideology.

"No party newspaper or politically-biased newspaper can attract readers. No partisan newspaper got popularity in our country and elsewhere in the world. Journalists must present facts neutrally maintaining professionalism."

He also bemoaned that journalists in the country are failing to play their due role in maintaining professionalism due to divisions among them on political line.

Enayetullah Khan said the changing media landscape is making it difficult to determine the best way to respond to fake news.

"Thorough fact-checking or media literacy might help, but we need to invent new ones to fight fake news and yellow journalism. We, at the United News of Bangladesh (UNB), are working on that," he said.

Among the solutions, the UNB Editor-in-Chief proposed creation of an Internet Ombudsman, a recommendation made before the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

"This solution would allow the actors/users and intermediaries of the internet in good faith to obtain a recommendation on the licit or illicit content," Khan said.

He said opposing opinions and vibrant debates are very important for democracy, and UNB has captured the discourse very quietly.

Enayetullah Khan stressed the importance of accountability saying, "We all have to be accountable in our personal life and social life."

Prime Minister's Additional Press Secretary Md Nazrul Islam said the journalist community, particularly district correspondents, can help check corruption producing fact-based reports on the anomalies in society as Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a zero-tolerance policy against corruption.

He suggested that the district-level journalists make human interest stories alongside reports on different regular issues like road accidents to sensitise the people over the social problems.

Mentioning that the boundary between facts and lies has become blurred in recent times, UNB Chairman Amanullah Khan said journalists should separate the facts from fantasy/fiction by critical thinking.

"As crusaders for truth and transparency, district correspondents should remain steadfast in their quest for verifiable news stories undeterred by threats, intimidations, undue pressure or influence by entrenched and vested interest groups," he said, adding that reporters should not allow themselves to be manipulated and avoid distortion at all costs.

  • Media freedom and accountability: Balancing twin objectives
  • Issue 32
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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