Despite the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bangladesh witnessed magical growth in per capita income, which rose from $2,591 in 2020-’21 to $2,824 in 2021-’22. She also outshined India in 2020 in terms of gross domestic product per capita in the current $1,961.6.

While the country did exceptionally well in these indicators, it performed very poorly in terms of the state of press freedom by slipping 10 notches in the Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom Index to 162 in 2022 from 152 in 2021.

One might argue that comparing per capita income/GDP to the state of press freedom is not right. But in a democracy, one cannot deny the fact that press freedom is closely related to different dimensions of development, including poverty, peace and overall governance.

A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Academic Research in Business and Social Science argued that the more press freedom a country has, the higher its per capita GDP, the longer its people’s life expectancy, the better its education indicators, and the higher the value of the nation’s control of corruption.

Democracy and press

A country can never have much of a democracy if it does not have a free press – the strength of democracy breathes in the lungs of the people. It means that the people are informed, and have access to information and knowledge to make informed decisions about the state affairs that influence their lives. For instance, the right to cast one’s vote without fear and favour.

Casting a vote is not the end of the line. Rather, it is the start of a governance process that allows the people to have a clear image of the next happenings – how the elected representatives and policy-makers take decisions with the ballot exercised. Despite the impressive economic development, Bangladesh is, perhaps, not on the right track.

Now, what caused the decline of the freedom of the press? Is it only the state functionaries that limited the press freedom or does the sector have its own governance problem, or is it both?

The news media industry in Bangladesh was one of the worst affected sectors by the Covid-19 pandemic. It took a heavy toll on the industry, the revenue generation had hit an all-time low forcing several outlets either to downsize or to shut down completely.

The government came forward and extended financial support to many journalists. It was indeed a commendable step that perhaps helped many in need. However, the news media as an industry did not receive any stimulus packages nor any policy support from the government to offset Covid-19’s shocks.

This fragility of the press is an outcome of years of systematic decline.

How this happened

First, an informal embargo restrained businesses from advertising in several newspapers that were either critical of the government or leaned toward an ideology. For the press, leaning toward an ideology or political belief is not a bad thing as long as it reports the fact – the cardinal truth of journalism.

The embargo was just the tip of the iceberg. Then came the Information and Communication Technology Act in 2006 followed by the infamous Digital Security Act in 2018. The latter is considered to be the black law for practising independent and impartial journalism. There is ample evidence where cases have been filed out of political motivation targeting politicians, journalists and dissidents.

Representational image. Photo credit: Ted Aljibe / AFP

While the embargo and formal restrictions are limiting the space for impartial and unbiased journalism, other elements are also contributing to the shrinking press freedom in Bangladesh.

Second, a large section of journalists is biased toward partisan politics, which is restricting the practice of independent and unbiased journalism in general. There is nothing inherently wrong with being aligned with a political ideology, but when it comes to journalism, they tend to forget the key principle of journalism: the presentation of the facts.

This worrying trend is likely to result in an existential threat to the press as people are slowly turning away and relying on unconventional sources of news, social media in particular. Although the power of social media is well acknowledged, such platforms have inherent issues when it comes to misinformation and disinformation.

Political biases, or perceived biases, among journalists generally involve slanting or fluctuating information to achieve a political position or to gain material benefits. In this case, journalists tend to remain aligned with the political party in power.

The people ultimately bear the brunt of such bias as the fact is either altered or concealed, leading to misgovernance of public services – they either do not get the service or adopt unfair means to get them.

Third, when a business or a business conglomerate owns and operates the press either to protect its business interests or eliminate competitors or get away with crimes and wrongdoings, the press in question tends to stay close to the power structure serving the interests of the powerholders.

Check and balance

There is almost no example in the world where the mainstream press is solely owned by journalists. For the sake of sustainability and profitability, the media industry needs investment from the private sector. But there has to be a check and balance system restricting the business from using the press for its benefit. Here comes the role of the state institutions that is somewhat missing in Bangladesh.

It is not always the state or the government, lack of professionalism, and other governance problems are also limiting press freedom in Bangladesh. No doubt, it is also affecting democracy as democracy without a free press never functions properly.

Democracy breaks down when press freedom is restricted. It leads to poor decision-making, misgovernance, and harmful outcomes for leaders and citizens alike. Even if a democratic state puts formal and informal restrictions, journalists must be able to report freely on issues of public interest. For the press, there is no other alternative.

By doing so, the press can remain relevant and create a platform for open dialogue among the people, their representatives and public institutions, ultimately helping citizens make more informed decisions.

This article first appeared in Dhaka Tribune.