Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) today said the recent directive of the Ministry of Information to register all online news portals and online editions of national newspapers and television channels would ensure full government control and interference by it over the media.
The anti-graft watchdog in a statement also said this directive is another suicidal step in implementing the long-standing missteps of various government authorities in controlling the media.
TIB hoped that the ministry will immediately withdraw the directive asking newspapers and television channels, which have been running their online portal under the existing policy of the ministry, to get separate registration.
In today's statement, TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said, "According to media reports, all online news outlets in the country - even the online portals of various national dailies and television channels that have been publishing for a long time - have been instructed to re-register.
"Although the information ministry said this directive is a part of their strategy to bring the registered media outlets under government benefits and to prevent misreporting, it will basically ensure the institutionalisation of government control over the country's media."
Despite the existence of various laws and policies related to the media in the country, it is not unreasonable to question whether this directive for separate registration is in the interest of journalism or an attempt to put pressure on the media and take the government and vested interests above criticism and accountability, the statement said.
While it is expected to ensure the free flow of information and the right to freedom of expression as acknowledged in the Constitution, the government is taking one step after another to snatch the constitutional right of free flow of information, says the TIB statement.
"While the media is struggling to survive during the coronavirus pandemic, the hasty registration order without finalising the draft online media policy is a sign of the state's authoritarian rule," said the TIB executive director.
He also said the government didn't pay heed to media experts' opinion that the online portals of the national dailies and televisions, which have been published for a long time under the existing registration policy, should be in operation.
"In particular, it is not unreasonable to fear that the new registration directive will become an effective threat to free journalism without finalising the formation of a registration authority or commission under the online media policy."
According to the online policy, it called for the formation of a commission. But as the commission has no power to implement the recommendations, there is a risk that it will become a subservient authority of the government, especially the information ministry, the statement said.
TIB, therefore, hopes that decisions on such sensitive and important issues will be taken in the context of open dialogue with all concerned.
The cabinet approved the draft National Online Media Policy, 2017 (Amendment 2020) yesterday in which it said from now on a newspaper will need registration to run its online version if content in the portal and the print edition are different.
Licenced television and radio channels will also require the registration to publish their news online.
At a virtual meeting with Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the chair, the cabinet meeting brought amendments to nine sections of the existing online policy, while five new sections were added to the draft of the National Online Media Policy, 2017 (amendment 2020), Cabinet Secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam said at a briefing at the secretariat after the meeting.
"If contents of the print and online versions of a newspaper are the same, they won't need approval [registration]. If newspapers bring variation [to the contents] to the online version, they will require registration," said the cabinet secretary.
"Newspapers are usually doing this [changing contents in the online version from the printed one]," he said.
"Televisions and radios will also have to get registered if they want to run their online portals going beyond their 'own media character'," he said.