Journalists cover a political rally in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka in this file photo. A series of job cuts and uncertainty over the industry's future has many Bangladeshi journalists worried. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/ucanews).
Up until October, Sohel Mahmud worked as a news reporter for a private TV channel in Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka.
At the end of the month, while working on a news story, the channel’s human resources manager called him in and handed him a letter notifying him his job had been terminated with immediate effect. No explanation as to why he had lost his job was given.
“I worked at the channel diligently for three years. I could have accepted my termination for negligence or any other fault on my part, but this was not the case. It was really shocking,” Mahmud told ucanews.
The Muslim, and father of two, had earlier worked for two years at another private TV channel, only to leave due to a wage dispute.
He has been unemployed since his latest setback and is struggling to provide for his family.
On the positive side, he has been in talks with a daily newspaper over a possible job as a reporter from next January.
“I am not sure whether this job will be satisfying and sustainable. Sometimes I wonder if I should leave journalism, but I cannot because it is my passion,” Mahmud said.
Troubles in media industry
Sohel Mahmud’s plight has become increasingly common in Bangladesh’s media industry in recent times.
In the past six months, more than 450 journalists, most of them from private TV channels, have lost their jobs, according to a report from Deutsche Welle (DW), the German state-run international broadcaster.
Channel 9, one of the country’s 33 private TV channels, shut down its news wing recently and became a fully-fledged entertainment channel, a move that put some 200 journalists out of work, DW reported.
ATN Bangla, one of the country’s oldest satellite TV channels, has terminated 49 employees including 14 journalists in the past two months.
A leading private channel, Maasranga TV, saw 25 employees quit in recent months, most of whom were asked to resign.
The print media has also been hit by job cuts.
Some 25 employees of “Daily Prothom Alo,” the country’s best-selling Bengali daily, recently quit their jobs.
Bangladesh, a South Asian nation of more than 160 million, has seen a massive boom in the media industry in the past decade.
The nation currently has about 1,000 daily newspapers, 33 private TV channels and 25 FM radio stations, according to the Information Ministry. Ten new TV channels are poised to enter the industry in the coming months.
The DW report said less than 10 percent of media outlets maintain proper work standards and a government-mandated pay structure for employees.
In recent months, journalists' situation has beocme worse with many media outlets terminating employees to cut costs.
The troubles in the media industry have their origins in a lack of an effective media policy, and an unexpected growth in the industry, which are now coupled with a political and economic downturn, senior journalists and analysts say.
“The media industry is passing through a restless and critical time, with journalists losing their jobs, thus instilling panic. The crisis is blamed on a lack of proper regulations, which allows media houses to act as unethical corporate organizations,” Abu Jafar, president of the Dhaka Union of Journalists, told ucanews.
“Due to demands from journalists, the government officially declared media work as an industry recently, but it has yet to ensure protection for it and employees through effective laws and rules,” he added.
The crisis is also a result of government negligence and pressure on media outlets, according to Father Albert T. Rozario, a Supreme Court lawyer and former member of the Catholic Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission.
“The government dislikes dissent, so any journalist or media criticizing the government are deemed, enemies. A journalist can easily be fired due to state pressure and a media house can face financial problems if the government stops placing advertisements and indirectly influences private organizations to follow the suit,” Father Rozario told ucanews.
Political loyalties and a national economic downturn also pose threats to media outlets and journalists, the priest noted.
The broadcast media, in particular, has suffered from “overgrowth,” says Shakil Ahmed, head of News at Ekattor TV and a member of the Dhaka-based Broadcast Journalist Center.
“I know 18 TV channels struggling to pay employees regularly, and 10 channels have an ongoing downsizing policy. That means most channels started without any foresight about how to ensure a steady income, improve quality and maintain job security for employees. No ethics or guidelines are in place to govern this oversized industry,” Ahmed told ucanews.
With a small advertising market and a lack of credibility due to political allegiances, most TV channels have been in existential crisis, he added.
Officials at the Information Ministry didn’t respond when ucanews contacted it for comments on the situation by phone.
On Nov. 21, Information Minister Dr. Hasan Mahmud said the government was eager to protect the media industry.
Repressive laws and poor welfare
Bangladesh has a series of British colonial era and modern laws that affect the media industry.
In 2009, Bangladesh passed the Right to Information Act, which allows any citizen to seek information from public and private organizations except some specific state agencies in case of “national interests and security.”
The Official Secrets Act 1923, the Contempt of Court Act 1926, Special Powers Act 1974, the Copyright Act 2000 and The Code of Criminal Procedure 1898 are often misused to pressurize and harass journalists.
Two recent laws, the Information and Communication Technology Act 2006 and Digital Security Act 2018 have also been accused of having provisions that limit freedom of expression and of the press, which conflicts with the constitutional right to freedom of expression.
The government drafted the Broadcast Act, the National Online Mass Media Policy and attempted to revise the Newspaper Employees Act 1974, which were expected to bring order to the media industry.
However, these new rules have also been accused of being repressive rather than addressing the welfare of journalists.
Bangladesh has become effectively a one-party state in the absence of an effective opposition, and only journalists can keep “democracy” alive, Father Rozario lamented.
“Despite political pressure and repressive laws, journalists have been our only hope for human rights, justice and peace in an increasingly authoritarian state. Without ensuring their job security and other rights, democracy risks being eroded further,” the priest warned.