The Speech: ‘Journalism isn’t for the faint-hearted’

It has to be a great pleasure for anyone in Bangladesh to welcome the kind of audience that you are. This is our very humble, annual attempt to say thank-you to you all. And, as always, I begin by saying thank-you for the support you provide every day, the encouragement you give by visiting our news site in huge numbers, by pointing out our mistakes we inadvertently make, by asking questions to make us accountable to our readers, viewers and listeners, by suggesting improvements that we ought to make, by leading us to areas we should reach out to. All these help enrich us, immensely.

Seven years ago, on this night, we decided to open our 24/7 content to the public, to anyone with access to the Internet, having taken over just a few months earlier a company that had all but formally closed down its sole business of running a news agency service.

It was an uphill task, I must admit. In about three months, we put together almost a new team. A new team of journalists, a new team of reporters-editors and a new team of managers.  And then (we) unfolded the first-of-its-kind news provider, round the clock, and in two languages, based on a new, absolutely untested business model.

Seven years on, we are still alive and kicking.

We started off at a time when there were no dearth of news. The nation was in a crisis. Remember 2006? Especially the second half? Political violence was the order of the day. A caretaker government wasn’t really functioning. Half the advisers resigned and were replaced by not very credible people. Chaos continued, and an election was announced; and the stage was all set for a vote that would be boycotted by one of the major parties and all its allies. Eleven days before the polling came the now-infamous 1/11, a development greeted by many out of sheer frustration and anger. The emergency was declared at the behest of the military but ironically by an elected civilian President. The two years that followed was essentially military rule with a ‘civilian façade’. A very senior civil servant at the time told me: “majors are running the country now and we are all minors”. The frustration crept into every aspect of our society. Businesses suffered, politicians humiliated, judges overruled, and of course laws didn’t matter at all.

Today, those majors are no longer major players anywhere. Some of them allegedly live in million-dollar homes, in Bangladesh, and some languish in obscurity.  But life goes on and people of Bangladesh have made great strides in achieving growth in almost all areas of the economy regardless of the quality of governance in the years gone by.

My colleagues, photographers and news editors have taken a quick look back on the seven-year history that we all sought to roughly draft.

Ladies and Gentlemen

In the last few days, I have had the opportunity to meet some of our top leaders – including the Leader of the Opposition. I can tell you with some degree of hope that all of them are aware of the dangers of democracy being derailed even for a while. Both are mindful of the tasks ahead to keep the all-important political process on track, regardless of the rhetoric in public. I am grateful for the support our politicians across the divide provide us in our regular news-gathering work.

Journalism is no business for the faint-hearted. If it is the business of writing the first rough draft of history, it becomes all the more difficult in a country where we often bicker about distortion of history.

Anyone who has put in a certain number of years in this profession knows all too well that Bangladesh, with its different forms of arbitrary governance, has not really been a bed of roses for newsmen. It gets even more complicated by the ownership. We have seen how bad it gets when the rule of regular law takes a back seat — especially in 2007-8.

Owners and media managers with too many skeletons in their closets created some of the horrifying examples in our media history.

The decision-makers themselves, who are also the biggest newsmakers, have paid the heaviest of price for their lack of commitment to the growth and development of a healthy, professional media environment in Bangladesh. The short-term gains they targeted led some politicians or their cronies and opportunist businessmen to own most of the media companies. Whether those that doled out favours to their friends will benefit in the longer run remains to be seen. But going by the experience during the 2008 elections, they stand a slim chance. The lessons are rarely learnt.

bdnews24.com remains the lone crusader in this war on this brand of journalism – the kind, promoted by unnamed sources and propelled by media men of dubious distinction, that has destroyed democratic values, undermined and weakened institutions, created distortions in various forms across our socio-political spectrum.

We at bdnews24.com often brag about one fact: we have always, without a single instance, practised what we have preached. I quote from a universally-respected code of conduct for journalism: “News outlets must identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” I am sure you all have noted this. This is the principle that has given us the credibility that we enjoy today. Since Day One, I have been telling my colleagues – ‘we don’t have to be first all the time, we don’t mind being second or third at times, but we must be accurate every time’. So we invest a lot in our editorial gatekeeping. Even our blogs are no exception, comments by readers are moderated by trained editors. And it pays off, although we at times lose out on rankings published by some sites. But go see Google Analytics, and you will find out who tops the table.

The recent developments are more encouraging for the digital world. As we live and interact more in the virtual space, five companies have rolled out 3G services. The Internet as a medium, going by statistics, is stronger than any other, even in Bangladesh. Today, according to regulators BTRC, the total number of Internet connections in Bangladesh stands at well over 36 million, nearly nine times the population of Norway or New Zealand. Nearly 95 percent of this number comes from the mobile phone operators. If news is being consumed through even 10 percent of these connections, we reach a staggering number – three times the total circulation of the entire print media in Bangladesh.

Five years ago, standing exactly here in this hall, we had predicted the growth of the New Media. That’s all part of history. I’d rather we didn’t beat our own drum any more.

Newsgathering and preparing it for public consumption is a much more serious business than some of our policymakers apparently think. So I repeat what I said two years ago: “There has to be some discipline in the way the state manages the media. The decision makers must be guided by some clearly defined principles.”

If you want to have 100 television stations, I do not see any problem. But do you really want all of them doing news? Can you really manage them? Or regulate them? No one should be above regulation. No one is beyond the principles of accountability even if one has a hundred international awards under one’s belt.

If you have a couple of hundred national newspapers, is it believable for, say, 20 newspapers to have the exactly same circulation figure?

Is it acceptable that the committee trying to draft a regulation for Internet content is comprised of mostly IT professionals? When it comes to content, information or news, I am not sure if it is the job of the ICT Ministry. I find it difficult to fathom why we do not realise when it comes to news that the Internet is just another medium like newspaper, TV or radio; the only difference is it has a lot more flexibility.

But despite all the complaints, journalism is a profession we at bdnews24.com thoroughly enjoy and are proud to be in.

To the young and the new-comers to our profession, I often say, if you’re just looking for a job, please don’t get into journalism. If you are not passionate about it, try some other profession. If you are one of those who incite religious hatred or defame individuals on blogs or social media, I do not want you because this is plain and simple crime. If you believe that being a journalist means you are free to write just about anything then you are not fit to be one because dream of absolute free speech is a delusion and a myth that no society has ever granted. And I say again what I said in our last dinner: “Speech must be responsible to be free, and there is a social and cultural necessity for freedom of responsible speech.” If you think the media leaders have a right to conspire against the political process, then I am not welcoming you.

Playing politics is not media’s business. We do not support any media entity getting engaged in changing regimes. We do cover politics, analyse or comment on political developments but getting involved directly should not be in our scheme of things.

When people talk about a ‘third force’ – we would like to believe they are talking about a third political force. We have never supported a third force outside the political process. It is the responsibility of the politicians to protect the process. And the media must be in a position to support that. Because we have a stake. A free and functioning media cannot sustain without a proper political process.

 

The next two days, or maybe the next few weeks, promise to produce many many big headlines. For us, the newsroom professionals, writing headlines has always been a pleasure. Let that pleasure NOT be at the expense of 160 million people. After all, they own this country.

Thank you!

[The text (and videos) of the speech delivered by Toufique Imrose Khalidi, editor-in-chief, at the annual dinner at Radisson Blu Water Garden Hotel on 23 October 2013]