The Speech: ‘No absolute free speech’

Official transcript of the speech by Toufique Imrose Khalidi at the Anniversary Dinner on 20 Dec 2011 at Radisson Hotel


No absolute free speech’ 

The very purpose of this event is, first, to say Thank You.

I mean say Thank-you to those who help us DO what we have set out to do on a daily basis. All the leading newsmakers of Bangladesh who are here tonight help us gather news, offer perspective to the incidents and events that we cover as they happen.

Our specialty of course has been presenting news as they break. And tonight, we’d like to share our thoughts about what we do and why we do the way we do.

As the chefs give final touches to your food, I’d like to share experiences from a newsroom that produces content for a wide range of audience – from the kind of people that you are to those who can barely read.

This is a newsgathering operation that never relents. If there’s a story breaking at three of clock in the morning, you get that update in minutes. If you are in Bangladesh, you get that when you wake up in the morning. It is part of your breakfast headlines; thousands of people are registered for that service. If you are in North America, you are at work or on the move, you get the update on your desktop or laptop or your palm top. So we target the entire world, Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi diaspora as well as anyone who has any interest in Bangladesh. But the fact remains that over 90 percent of our readers come from within the territory of Bangladesh.

Five years on, I am still confronted with questions about the fact that we are an Internet-only news outlet. Of course the number of those asking this has decreased quite considerably. But this question mark takes a heavy toll on the way we try to conduct our business of writing the first rough draft of history.

Even the fact that we are the NUMBER ONE Website – not just the number one news site – in Bangladesh doesn’t help.

So there are problems. But we are proud of what we have achieved so far. We have thoroughly enjoyed competing with what my colleague Afsan Chowdhury calls the traditional media. And, I am sure many of you know, we win in most cases. The power of Internet is such that it can combine all attributes of all the other media. We have introduced some video and audio but could have done better. Just give us faster and cheaper Internet that almost the rest of the world has got already, and we guarantee a great rate of return on the investment.

 I can give you examples: Our quality of education has been a major cause for concern. Cheaper and faster Internet can solve that problem. There are many in this audience who know HOW. Our public health care system has never been in a great shape. Cheaper and faster Internet can help in a great way. The list can go on and on.

Today, the Internet penetration is quite deep. The number is 20 million. Twenty million Bangladeshis have access to Internet, and that’s according to the chairman of the BTRC.

 Reaching even 10 percent of that number means we equal the circulation figure for all newspapers in Bangladesh put together. According to government figures, all 400-odd papers across Bangladesh sell just two million copies.

 We compete with live TV and we enjoy it. Many of you may remember that, in Bangladesh, we introduced scrolls or tickers giving as-it-happens updates, with full story following shortly. The TV channels followed us. Some newspapers started giving more than one update in 24 hours, eventually trying to upgrade into a 24/7 operation. We enjoyed that too.

 As we are celebrating our five years, my colleagues have put together this video for this event:

We have also enjoyed setting the news agenda. One Farzana in rural Bangladesh says a resounding NO to her just-pronounced husband. Is that news? We thought that was really big. And we went really big. Two school teachers have been punished. Farzana Yasmin has received phone calls from Cabinet ministers. But above everything, thousands have debated the issue on social media, leading to alarm bells or wakeup calls ringing in all the right places.

We specialise in instant news. But we also try to go deeper, investigate and mark special days and events in a very special way. For instance, we have been marking 40 years of Victory. Earlier this month, my colleagues travelled to southern town of Bagherhat to capture the extraordinary story of an extraordinary woman.  Khurshid Jahan Begum, then a young mother, went to the war, took her five-month-old child along.

 The freedom fighter is another leading newsmaker for us, hitting headlines 40 years on.

It’s been a fantastic five years leading and innovating ways to present news to a wide range of people.

We are proud to have been able to present the first exclusively-for-children content in any medium in Bangladesh. The Website, probably the first such venture in the world in Bangla, gives me some very special privilege. Very often, at social events, I get some sort of ovation from pre-teen children, thanks to our The kidz page is now four and a half years old, still alive and kicking without any advertisement or sponsorship of any kind.

Our Virtual Magazines or V-mags, another first in Bangladesh, is another presentation innovation that tries to take care of the old habits of reading paper magazines.

 We are proud of our site for technology content. It gives you all the latest news on innovations as well as new gadgets that hit the shops anywhere in the world.

Poets and creative writers in this country are very unfairly branded as technophobes or Internetphobes.

Just go and browse the arts site and see how many of them write on the Web, how many people read such content and from how many different countries.

 We have one on the showbiz celebrities, with all the latest from the world of glamour, but not much of gossip.

Even when we deal with the stories from tinsel town, we try to take equal editorial care. For us, news is news. So all stories go through almost similar degree of scrutiny by our news editors. But of course we do make mistakes. Just remember that we produce, literally, hundreds of reports and other pieces every day in two languages. And that makes us the single largest news content provider in Bangladesh.

 I must thank people like you — the leading newsmakers in Bangladesh — for helping us create the most trusted news content in this country. The trust and the confidence of our readers and consumers is quietly reflected in the number of people who subscribe to our mobile news services.

Our news alert service branded as BREAKING NEWS is doing quite well. This is instant news in English in just 160 characters of SMS. In an exclusive partnership with grameenphone, we reach a number of people that is far greater than the circulation figures for all the English newspapers in Bangladesh.

 We have various other updates throughout day, with nearly 120,000 registered subscribers.

 Our editorial gatekeeping is being applied to our blogs too. It is true that there’s certainly a greater degree of freedom on blogs.

 I am sorry I am not a great supporter of absolutely free speech as some bloggers try to advocate.

I agree with this view that the dream of absolute free speech is a delusion. This is a myth no society has ever granted.

 Who would recognise the right of a man to go on a killing spree in a crowded convention centre, as happened in Norway. No one should call for the execution of an elected leader, nor should one publish totally false and malicious statements with respect to an individual.

 No one should be allowed to incite religious hatred or defame individuals on blogs or social media – Facebook or Twitter. This is plain and simple crime. The government must create new laws to fight such crimes.

 Speech must be responsible to be free, and there is a social and cultural necessity for freedom of responsible speech.

 What we see on blogs here in Bangladesh is the result of poor decision-making by the powers that be at various points in our history. I say this today because a very senior politician has recently raised this point. I agree with him, but I also ask him to take part of the collective blame for failing to behave responsibly as a decision maker.

I can warn you very safely that it is the politicians who will pay the heaviest price if the media scene continues to remain as unruly as it has been for quite some time now.

I will be the last person to advocate regulation of the media by a monstrous state agency, but just everyone should not be allowed to own or run media entities.

You cannot possibly have 10 or 20 news agencies producing or selling content. Is there any business case for that?

 And not everyone should be allowed to disseminate information or news even through mobile phones. We must decide on the criteria. We must have some regulation.

I see no problem in having 100 TV stations, but not everyone should be doing news. That is a discussion that has to be done at the very highest level of decision-making in the country.

We do not write editorials. Nor do we try to pontificate on the front pages of our Internet paper. I just could not resist the temptation of talking about these issues with such luminaries in the audience.


Thank you for listening. 

Later, asked to clarify some of the points he raised, Toufique Khalidi said: “There has to be some discipline in the way the state manages the media. The decision makers must be guided by reason.”

 “The chaotic media scene portends bad for the political process,” he said in clear reference to the widespread media manipulation by the army-installed 2007-8 emergency government.