Matiur Rahman, editor and publisher of Prothom Alo, is one of the most respected journalists in South Asia. In an editorial career spanning 47 years, He spoke to Dhaka Courier about the role of a free press and an independent judiciary.
Here is the full text of the interview appeared in the magazine in its latest issue:
DC: In a recent report, Amnesty International has said that Bangladesh is regressing in press freedom. As the editor of the country’s most widely read daily newspaper, how would you describe the situation?
MR: The news media has always had to work in a difficult environment in this country - the difference is one of degree. If I go back to where my editorial career started, I was acting editor of a newspaper called Ekota in 1970. The paper’s publication was interrupted by the Liberation War. I spent the war months in Agartala, but after independence, we started the paper up again. In 1975, the newspaper was closed down along with many others as the country became a one party state. In the the late 70s, we were able to resume publication but the Ekota was closed once again after the 1986 elections. What I’m saying is that I have personally seen many ups and downs.
I started the daily Bhorer Kagoj in 1992. In 1993, we suffered when the BNP government stopped placing government advertisements. The cycle was repeated after I started Prothom Alo in 1998. The then Awami League government also employed the same pressure tactics by withholding government advertising in 2000. When the same thing happened in 2002 during the BNP government, I went to see Tariqul Islam, who was then information minister. I told him that I hadn’t come to lobby for advertising.
“I’ve come to deliver a message. Those who try to muzzle a free press don’t win in the next election,” I told him. And now, for quite some time we are facing problems in getting advertisements.
The bottom line is that in the 46 years since independence, we haven’t been able to create the environment needed for a free press. There can be lots of debate about this, but I think the difference is just one of degrees. Sometimes it’s more restrictive, sometimes less, but the challenges remain. It’s sad.
DC: So what kind of environment would be ideal for an independent press?
MR: I think we deserved more than what we’ve got. Having said that, it’s not a great situation if the press becomes too chummy with those in power. If everyone is pleased with you, you’re probably not doing your job as a pressman. Does that mean I want confrontation? Not at all. I would like an environment where the media can carry out professional obligations without undue pressure. It’s not an easy environment, but we continue to do our job despite the limitations. I hope our readers understand and appreciate this. People are smart. They know what’s going on.
DC: What about the media’s responsibilities when it comes to reporting the news?
MR: The press has to be objective, accurate and fair. You cannot peddle falsehood. You cannot incite violence. Do no harm. If you make a mistake, don’t hesitate to apologise. This is something we believe in at Prothom Alo.
You have to remember that the media landscape is undergoing rapid change. No one will be able to control the news media entirely. Yes, you can shut down one or more newspapers. You can close TV stations. But you can’t hope to control the flow of information any longer. All of us need to embrace that reality. Whether you’re a print newspaper, an online portal, a TV channel or a Facebook page, you have to remember that journalism will thrive as long as we publish the truth with courage and honesty. Good journalism is good business. This has been proved everywhere and we have also proved it in Bangladesh. We can be self-sufficient and we can run by ourselves without depending on handouts.
DC: How do you see the relationship between the media and the judiciary?
MR: We have had to contend with many legal challenges. We went to the Press Council twice over disputes and won each time. That’s why I think we should strengthen institutions like the Press Council. People might feel aggrieved by a news report and they should have recourse to a legal process. But it should be in a way that doesn’t allow harassment of journalists.
Journalists face threats from state actors and non-state actors. The cases filed in these cases usually end up going nowhere. Journalists shouldn’t face warrants in these cases. This practice shouldn’t be encouraged.
DC: The constitution guarantees a free press. Can the higher courts play a role in upholding this guarantee?
MR: We have been called by the High Court no less than 18 times through suo moto rulings over our reporting. We were asked to justify what we wrote. I can tell you that we were able to stand by our stories each and every time. If you have done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear and you will get relief from the courts.
DC: What about the role of the media in sensational cases such as the Narayanganj ‘seven-murder’ case? Does that help the cause of justice?
MR: I think the media and the judiciary both played very important roles in the Narayanganj case which ended up exposing the wrongdoings of the officers that were involved in the killing. The investigative reporting done by news organisations put the spotlight on details that the law enforcers involved were trying to hide. Then the court took it up and played a proactive role. This is an example of how the media and the judiciary can work together to advance the cause of truth and justice.
Courtesy: Dhaka Courier