Can the Press Council of Bangladesh effectively ensure press freedom as well as media regulation?
This is the concluding part of a two-part article on media regulation in Bangladesh. In the first part, we looked at the mainstream media landscape, prevalence of misinformation, disinformation, and fake news in mainstream media, and how the government has so far tackled, or attempted to tackle, the issue of regulation using the criminal justice system. In the second part, we look at the Press Council of Bangladesh, and what role it can play in effective and commonsense regulation of the media, subject to appropriate reforms.
- The Press Council in Bangladesh was established in 1974 “for the purpose of preserving the freedom of the Press”. Article 39 of the Constitution of Bangladesh and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) both support press freedom.
- This article analyzes the Press Council law and draws comparisons with its counterparts in India and the United Kingdom, including its status as a civil court, the complaint mechanism and the need for codes of conduct to regulate responsible and fair journalism.
The Press Council of Bangladesh was set up in 1974 by the Awami League government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman through a law which underscored the importance of “preserving the freedom of the Press”. The Press Council was supposed to be the primary forum for media regulation in Bangladesh. It has the powers of a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, with the authority to issue summons and impose nominal fines. Inquiries by the council are deemed judicial proceedings.
Need for Proper Code of Ethics
The Bangladeshi Press Council Act mentions a “code of journalistic ethics” in Section 12 (1), which is absent in the language of the Indian Press Council Act of 1978 where Section 14 authorizes the Press Council of India to censure any news organization for violating the standards of journalistic ethics and professional misconduct. Despite Bangladeshi law specifically mentioning a code for journalists and the lack of similar language in Indian law, the Bangladesh Press Council has not yet developed such a code while the Indian Press Council has done so. India introduced its Norms of Journalistic Conduct in 2022. The policy promotes responsible reportage, including aspects of accuracy, fairness, verification, confidentiality and privacy.
Defamation and Tort Law
It should be noted that even with a proper code of ethics under the Press Council, certain constitutional rights of the citizens need to be protected by tort law, including the right to privacy, non-discrimination, private property, and freedom of thought, conscience and speech. A breach of these citizens’ rights should give rise to legal liability and financial damages on the part of the violator. Ensuring this kind of accountability will serve as a strong deterrent against yellow journalism. Additionally, as argued in Part 1 of this series, defamation and libel allegations against journalists need to be treated as civil offenses.
Reform of the Press Council
In 2016, the Law Commission published its opinion on proposed amendments to the Press Council Act. It included references to the Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure. Any criminalization of faulty news reporting will be a deeply counter-productive move. It is to the government’s credit that unreasonable amendments were not adopted. The Commission also referred to comparative best practices in the UK, New Zealand, France, Denmark, Germany, India, Sri Lanka, Canada and Australia. At the heart of best practices is the availability, functionality and effectiveness of a complaint mechanism. This includes the right of the public to inform regulators about inaccurate or false reporting. Regulators must then decide whether the journalistic material conformed to the high standards of integrity.
The importance of self-regulation in the media is often emphasized. A Bangladeshi editor recently penned an article in which he proclaimed that “only journalists can protect journalism”. Indeed, the composition of the Press Council is meant to be dominated by the representatives of journalists’ associations, editors’ guilds, and publishers’ associations. Given the legal powers of the Press Council, it is only natural that a Judge of the Supreme Court is appointed as its chair. Journalists should also nominate legal experts to assist the Press Council in dealing with content disputes. Media law is a flourishing profession in many countries. Hence, content disputes need to be addressed in an appropriate forum and not be subjected to politicization or criminalization.
Modern regulatory bodies in the UK rely on a flexible complaint system based on telephone dial-ins and online applications from the public. Moreover, regulators in the UK get to scrutinize both entertainment and news content. The PCB and PCI still rely on a cumbersome system of filing complaints; and are focused solely on the news media.
Ofcom is the UK’s broadcast media regulator. In 2021, Ofcom received a record-breaking 57,121 complaints for Piers Morgan’s commentary on the Duchess of Sussex during the ITV show Good Morning Britain. The previous record was held by the show Big Brother, when alleged racism towards the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty received 44,500 complaints.
The UK’s Independent Press Standards Organization (IPSO) often receives complaints from the British public regarding press reports. Tabloids like the Daily Mail often generate the most complaints. In 2021, for example, IPSO ruled 15 times against the online version of the Mail. The Mail Online was followed by the Sun, the Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Star in terms of IPSO rulings which found a breach of its code of conduct. Reparations for a breach include a report from regulators regarding their findings on the dispute.
Both Ofcom and IPSO have hotlines for the public to dial in and report concerning media content. The statistics for dial-ins are transparent and available in the public domain, which acts as a counterweight in terms of self-regulation. Ofcom and IPSO have established codes of conduct, including a Broadcasting Code for networks and an Editors’ Code of Practice for the press.
The Indian Press Council law establishes a complaint mechanism for faulty news reporting, with the option for arbitration conducted under The Press Council (Procedure for Inquiry) Regulations, 1979. The procedure for inquiry serves as the rules of arbitration. However, our Press Council lacks a similar set of procedural rules governing the arbitration of content disputes. The only regulation listed on the Press Council website concerns the council’s employees. It is therefore necessary to introduce a set of procedural rules to give effect to Section 12 (1) of the Press Council Act, 1974. The Press Council has also not introduced a code of journalistic ethics, despite mentioning such a code in Section 12 (1). A fair, nuanced and balanced code will undoubtedly help the Press Council to adjudicate disputes.
The Press Council is a legacy of Bangladesh’s first government under the Awami League. Empowering the Press Council and defending the principles of the Press Council Act only serve to consolidate the legacy of the Awami League. The press played an important role in contributing to the liberation of Bangladesh. Newspapers have been at the forefront of advocating civil and political rights for the people of Bangladesh.
References to criminal law are contradictory to the objectives of the Press Council Act of 1974 which clearly specifies the purpose of preserving the freedom of the press. Section 11 of the Press Council Act declares the council’s goal “to help newspapers and news agencies maintain their freedom”. The Press Council must be at the forefront of defending press freedom through engagement, research and dispute resolution.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s first government led Bangladesh’s accession to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 2000. Article 19 of the ICCPR promotes freedom of expression, including the freedom to seek, receive and impart information. Article 19 (3) also provides that the exercise of these rights entails special duties and responsibilities. These rights can therefore be subjected to certain lawful restrictions which are necessary to protect the freedom, rights and reputations of other citizens; and to protect national security, public order, public health and morality. The Constitution of Bangladesh also allows reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression. Article 39 (2) of the constitution should therefore be interpreted in line with Article 19 (3) of the ICCPR, given that Bangladesh is a state party of the ICCPR.
In 2009, in the case of BNWLA v. Bangladesh 29 BLD (2009) 415, the Supreme Court held that “international conventions and norms are to be read into the fundamental rights in the absence of any domestic law occupying the field when there is no inconsistency between them. It is now an accepted rule of judicial construction to interpret municipal law in conformity with international law and conventions when there is no inconsistency between them or there is a void in the domestic law”.
In conclusion, it is submitted that a modernized and reformed Press Council, with a proper code of conduct for the press, a set of arbitration rules, and a flexible and approachable complaints mechanism, can help the state strike the appropriate balance between freedom of the press and responsible journalism.
About the Author
Umran Chowdhury is a legal practitioner and analyst working at a law firm in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He previously worked in a global law firm and was a research assistant at a law school under the University of London. He also worked at the Bangladesh Institute of Law and International Affairs (BILIA).