Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Some facts about the Editor's Council statement on media freedom

Toufique Khalidi, editor-in-chief of bdnews24.com has recently written a vituperative article attacking a recent statement by Bangladesh's Editor's Council which had raised concerns about freedom of the media in country.

The article, 'Why I do not agree with the Editor's Council'  states that the Council's statement is 'a blatant example of hypocrisy, double standards, and personal agenda-driven exercise.' It is a very personalized attack, in which he states that he has 'no respect for some of these editors' some of whom he  argues have 'have never been professional journalists in the real sense of the term.' The final half of the article is just a stream of consciousness that deserves no serious attention, and is not directly relevant to the editor's council statement.

Khalidi's first set of concerns revolve around an apparent conflict of interest, since some of the members of the editors council are, he says, also shareholders of their papers, and are therefore members of the Newspaper Owners Association of Bangladesh (NOAB). This is an interesting point - but in the context of this statement made by the Editor's Council it is unclear what is the particular conflict of interest about which Khalidi is concerned. One could more appropriately allege that there was a conflict of interest had the editors not made a statement critical of the government (in order to protect their financial interests as owners) rather than making one, as they have done here.

Moreover, Khalidi's concern about editor's 'conflicts of interest' since they are also owners  would have had more force if he himself was not (and perhaps still is) a part owner of bdnews24.com whilst at the same time being an Editor-in-Chief of the website. At the bottom of his article Khalidi describes himself as the Editor-in-Chief of bdnews24.com, but perhaps he is actually writing as an owner of the company? **

Khalidi then goes onto suggest that there was something improper about how the meeting was organized, implying that the Editor's Council President and other editors did not know that the meeting was happening - that it was somehow organized behind their back. The article also implies that Mahfuz Anam, the editor of the Daily Star, had drafted and agreed the statement without the involvement of other editors.

Khalidi however has simply not done his homework, and surprisingly, as someone who prides himself on his journalism (indeed unnecessarily referring to himself in his piece as someone who was 'employed by one of the major media outlets in the world' and who earlier in the article also claims not to respect other editors who were not journalists in their time) has made the most elementary journalistic mis-steps in failing to find out how the meeting was organized and during the meeting. Since he is not only a journalist himself, but also in charge of a team of journalists, this is somewhat unfortunate to say the least - particularly since he must know all of the members of the Editor's Council personally.

First, Khalidi did not state that the meeting was organized at the written invitation of not just Mahfuz Anam (as General Secretary of the Council) but also by Golam Sarwar, the editor of the daily Samokal, and President of the Council. An invitation was e-mailed from Mahfuz Anam's office, on behalf of both men, to over 20 editors (including to the e-mail address of the Daily Samakal) on 22nd February. (Before writing his article, Khalidi could of course have obtained a copy of the invitation from any one of the 20 or so editors who received it). The invitation stated:
Subject: Notice of 8th meeting 
Dear Members, 
The 8th meeting of the Shampadak Parishad will be held on Tuesday, February 24, 2015 at 12:30 am at The Daily Star Centre on the following agenda: 
(1) Present status of press freedom.
(2) Any other issue. 
This is an urgent meeting and we request all members to kindly attend. 
The meeting will be followed by lunch.
With regards,
Golam Sarwar                                    Mahfuz Anam
President                                             Secretary General
Shampadak Parishad                          Shampadak Parishad
So, we can see that the invitation was sent on behalf of both men. The meeting did not take place in secret and Sarwar - and all the other editors who are members of this council - knew that the meeting was happening on a particular date. The editors not only received an invitation by e-mail but also, apparently, received calls to remind them of the meeting.

Secondly, Khalidi did not mention that Sarwar and all the other editors knew prior to the meeting what matter was on the agenda - just one item the 'Present status of press freedom' - since this was written on the invitation. All the editors knew exactly what issue the Council was going to discuss. Moreover, the invitation stated that the meeting was 'urgent'. Coming, as it did just a few days after the Prime Minister's criticisms in parliament against the Daily Star editor, and the filing of a case against him, all the editors must have realized the nature of the concern, and that a statement on this matter would  in all likelihood be discussed at the meeting.

Thirdly, Khalidi did not mention that at the meeting itself,  ten to twelve editors were present, and that this was sufficient to make a quorum of editors, that is to say enough to make decisions and statements on behalf of the Council.

Fourthly, Khalidi did not mention that in the course of the meeting a draft of a written statement was put to the council members present. and that those present had opportunities to make suggestions for changes, and indeed some changes were indeed made and the final version was unanimously agreed.

So, what Khalidi, should have written was this. All the editors who were members of the council were sent an invitation to an 'urgent' meeting on the subject of 'present status of press freedom'. A properly constituted council meeting took place, involving a quorum of editors, who unanimously agreed to make a statement on behalf of the editors council.

Now it appears from press reports that the President of the Council has disowned the statement. But Khalidi in his article does not state that the President:
- knew perfectly well that the meeting was taking place, on what date and what was on the agenda;
- decided on this own accord not to attend the meeting. 
and that the constitution of the Editors Council requires, as I understand it, that members of the council should abide by decisions of the council, when made in a properly constituted fashion (which is the situation here).

All that has really happened is this. The editor of a pro-government paper decided to criticize a statement of a properly constituted meeting of the editor's council, presumably because the statement was critical of the government. That does put things in a rather different light. 

Then Khalidi moved onto the content of the statement. This stated inter alia
"We have noticed with concern that it has recently become very difficult for newspapers and national media to work independently and neutrally.

Journalists are being attacked and falling victim of violence in name of political programmes while attempts to curb the independence of the newspapers and media are being made.

The government is interfering with the media's rights. Independent and impartial news gathering and publishing are facing obstructions from the government and administration.

Sometimes certain newspapers or television channels are being wrongfully labelled as the mouthpiece of a particular party or group.
TV talk-shows have been interfered with in many ways. Some talk-show programmes have been stopped by the time. Lists of talk-show discussants have been specified. Interference is there in TV live programmes. We think the direction over which items will be aired or not is interference in freedom of expression.

The government and the administration are creating obstructions towards collecting and distributing neutral news. Sometimes some newspapers have been labeled as the mouthpieces of a specific party/quarter. 
Editors and Publishers are being harassed through filing false cases against them. Even the incident like police search in the New Age office also took place which is also part of harassment.”
Khalidi accepts that it was very wrong for the prime minister to strongly criticize the editor of the Daily Star in parliament, over a matter that clearly was not appropriate for her to do so, but then states, "But for us, the rest of the media, the content of his statement is a matter of concern because there may be a perception among our readers, listeners, and viewers that the situation has suddenly deteriorated to such an extent that it warranted such a statement by the “editors".'

This post is not a discussion about media freedom in Bangladesh, and the extent to which it is worse or better than in previous times (I shall write about that separately), but I think when you have the prime minister launching an attack at the most successful and most influential English language paper in the country, which is clearly a serious attack across this particular paper's bows, and when the criticism is linked to a criminal case lodged against him, that must surely in itself be a matter of concern justifying a statement by the Editor's Council. And in such a statement, concerns that other editors may have have about freedom of media would be appropriate to set out, which is exactly what happened.

Bdnews24 also published another article on the Editor's Council by Badrul Ahsan's What the Editors Council has not done. This is a more balanced piece - and Ahasn make some good points about the failure of the Editors Council to take earlier a position about Amar Desh - but he makes one point that one needs to take issue with, and that is his criticism of the Council in failing to raise general political issues.

Surely it is not the role of the Editor's Council to take a political position on the elections, or on whether the government should or should not dialogue with the opposition, or BNP's role in the violence. Newspapers, quite rightly take different positions on these matters, and it is not a matter appropriate for the Editors' Council.

The role of the council should surely be about issues that directly impact their role as editors - for example matters like media freedom.

** Full disclosure: I work for New Age, one of the papers whose editors were represented at the Editor's Councils. What is written here is done so in a personal capacity. I had worked at bdnews24 as Editor Special Reports for a very enjoyable six months, leaving the website out of concern of conflicts of interests at the website involving its erstwhile part-owner, Beximco.

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