Liberal Democracy without Illusions: Crisis in Media Ownership

Sultan Mohammed Zakaria

Sultan Mohammed Zakaria

Two thousand five hundred years ago the small Greek city-state of Athens made a series of adjustments to its domestic political arrangements. The reforms of Kleisthenes, the Chief Archon in Athens in 525BC, which were a severely local response to protracted local difficulties, provided an impetus to an ideological breakthrough for the future course of political thoughts, a new system of government – Democracy. It is noteworthy that Kleisthenes’s democracy was more about dismantling the autocratic and suppressing practices of his previous tyrants and providing people with some degree of freedom when they had fewer expectations. Nevertheless, today’s standing of democratic ideas and concepts differ fundamentally. In present day’s definition, pluralist and elitist theories predict that democratic government will lead to better results for society than available alternatives (other form of governments). Accordingly, normative theories share the premise of people’s equal right to participate in the collective self-determination, whereas the egalitarian premise is very crucial. Yale University Professor Ian Shapiro illustrated the democratic ideas as follows: “they (people) expect to participate in making the collective decisions that govern them and that these decisions to be informed by extensive public deliberation. Besides, they expect those who lead public discussion and implement the collective will to be held accountable for their actions by the electorate…” With these all and many other attributes, the idea of liberal democracy gradually emerged. However, in reality, democracy so far failed to deliver as expected and it provides a cause for disappointments for the demos. Its participation is somehow fleeting, accountability is little more than nominal and the mechanisms for “democratic” decisions are obscure.

Despite the egalitarian structural distributive principle of democracy, the actual distribution of political power, however, depends on people’s political preferences as they act within the structure. To be self-governing, people require the capacity to form public opinion and then to have that public opinion influence and ultimately control public “will formation”- that is, government laws and policies. The media constitute a crucial sluice between public opinion building and state’s “will formation” (the term is coined by Jurgen Habermas’ in his book Between Facts and Norms). The mass media, like elections, serve to mediate between the public and the government, hence, in a democratic system, play a role of a Fourth Estate within the government structure (the other three estates are: the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary) as Edmund Burk historically put it: “there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

Although the media in a democratic system is sometimes considered (often hyped) as the single-most vigilant actor in the vertical accountability mechanism, recent trends have given rise to some serious concerns as to media’s dubious role in many public interest issues. Media owners have to take much of this blame for this imbroglio. However, when developed countries are facing the ownership concentration issue, underdeveloped or developing countries are gradually being introduced with this new kind of phenomenon. Whatever the case is, it has seriously become a matter of concern which threatens the foundation of the very concept. Noam Chomsky, in his book Secret, Lies and Democracy, illustrated how media owners remotely control the news contents and stated that: “Investors don’t go down to the television studio and make sure that the local talk-show host or reporter is doing what they want. There are other, subtler, more complex mechanisms that make it fairly certain that the people on the air will do what the owners and investors want. … that propaganda system includes not just how issues are framed in news stories but also how they’re presented in entertainment programming — that huge area of the media that’s simply devoted to diverting people and making them more stupid and passive.” Thus media owners sometimes not only twist the facts and make people stupid, but also used to serve the vested and special interests of big corporations, corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, political extremists and fundamentalist groups. Hence, the irresponsible media usually consistently presents one-sided and inaccurate depictions of the political landscape through intimidations, deceits, biased reporting or unsubstantiated commentaries. Moreover, spectacular media images and stories, or as Douglas Kellner (in his book Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy) terms it “media spectacle,” have also become important factors in swaying public opinion and national politics in the 21st century.

Bangladesh is as new a democracy as the country itself. However, since the very beginning of its independence, the commitment for democracy by its founder fathers has been enshrined in the newly orchestrated constitution. Nonetheless, it has experienced some hiccups in the political realm (some were ruthlessly brutal) compounded with a few military interventions which diverted the new-born country from its democratic path. Later, after nearly one and a half decade, it reinstalled the democratic system of government in the early 1990s.

Until recently, media ownership in Bangladesh was mainly handed on typical professional groups came largely from the journalistic background who understood and apprehended their role as social reformers and considered their efforts would pave the way for the nation building process. Thus, the sector was nearly intact from any big controversies. However, there was always an existence of more politically attached individuals whose primary objectives were to serve respective political interests and propagating their ideologies and agendas. Nevertheless, the situation started changing rapidly during the early part of 1990s with reemergence of democracy when a coterie of business people flocked into the parliament as its members while some of whom later discovered that only mere legislative power could not breed their purposes. Therefore, they endeavored to form an executive-legislative-media power nexus in which a person-elect could avail every option to exploit his business and personal interests whereby concerned authority and the common people would hardly dare to question any of his misdemeanors, power abuses, corruption and malpractices. Since then, we have experienced a surge of business people in the realm of media sector. May be a success of one lured many others. This is a new and threatening reality of our media realm, with which we have to learn to live or we must find a way out to rescue the Fourth Estate. Because, when the intention of a person becomes exploiting vested interests, hiding corruption with a propaganda machine, challenging and fearing the ruling authority and the administration not to meddle in his corrupt affairs, then the idea of the free press becomes a farce and has to face a serious backlash. The very freedom suddenly becomes a burden.

One such case of ownership crisis has been detected recently. A businessman-cum-politician Mr Mahmudur Rahman, who himself later voluntarily assumed the Editorship (acting) of a national daily by injecting hard cash was in question about his roles played during the editorship. His multiple interests were in direct clash with his responsibilities and obligations as an editor which to be in consistent with Fourth Estate principles. Many alleged that the editor (now detained and jailed) has deliberately blurred the line between subjectiveness and objectiveness in his biased reporting, forced reader to swallow which were sometimes a threat to religious harmony (by portraying, on a number of occasions, religious extremists as innocent madrasha people), national integrity (by creating xenophobia and spreading hatred against neighboring countries with tailoring divisions between nationalistic forces), and social stability. He also breached the gentlemen agreement by virtually taking side of the killers of Father of the Nation by publishing a series of stories justifying the killing when the killers were waiting to face guillotine. It was of utter frustration to many when he impliedly portrayed those killers as heroes by necessitating the killing spree at such a crucial time when apparently the whole nation was awaiting to take the long overdue burden off its shoulder. Unhesitatingly, for the sake of a healthy social environment, any society cannot but condemn this sort of obnoxious activities. Regarding media owners’ such kind of intentional ignorance to social concerns, the most important semi-official and policy-oriented study of the mass media in U.S. history, the Hutchins Commission Report, explicitely noted that- these owners did not provide adequately for the needs of the society, and that they sometimes engaged in practices that society condemns.

media illusions

A remark from a renowned journalist and press critic A. J. Liebling could be more relevant in this context as she once opined that “Freedom of press is guaranteed only to those who own one”. Democracy allow us to enjoy a set of freedoms but it has also been tagged with a string of responsibilities. If we want a better government, it will be our purposive actions that will bring about the desired change as one must remember the popular maxim that“people deserve the government they have”. People have to share some responsibilities and obligations with the government to transform the change more meaningful and sustainable. As much as they do so, the democracy worth more to them and, at the same time, the less people understand and apprehend their boundaries, the less liberal the democracy turns into. The two things are very much intertwined while one without another is simply risky and harmful for the society and obviously less sustainable.