In Bangladesh, contemporary discussion of media censorship focuses on how the Awami League government restricts what is broadcast on television or published in newspapers.
To achieve this, the government has many coercive mechanisms available to it, most prominently the Digital Security Act which has resulted in dozens of journalists and editors being arrested and imprisoned. However, the easiest way for a government to control the media is through ownership, that is to ensure that the country’s media owners are already politically aligned to the government. And the government has managed to achieve this.
Last week’s column looked, for example, at how nearly a third of Bangladesh’s TV stations are owned or partly owned by pro-Awami League politicians. And there are of course many newspapers — not least, The Independent and The Dhaka Tribune — in this category. Having the “right” people owning the media, makes it much easier for the government to control what is and is not published. If you want to know the main explanation of the generally uncritical journalism published and broadcast in Bangladesh, think no further than who owns the TV stations and the newspapers.
Without detracting from the importance of this political censorship, an equally significant, but often overlooked, cause for journalistic suppression in Bangladesh is that played by the media’s corporate owners, whatever political party they may or may not support.
This is because behind just about all the key private TV stations and print media are huge business conglomerates, most of which operate in many different sectors of Bangladesh’s economy. Earlier this year a report, titled “Who Owns the Media in Bangladesh”, by the Dhaka-based Centre for Governance Studies identified 23 major business conglomerates that own at least one significant newspaper or TV station. There are only a few important newspapers or TV stations which are not owned or partly owned by a conglomerate. One conglomerate – Bashundhara – owns 3 newspapers, 1 TV station, an online site and a radio station.
The problem with conglomerates owning media enterprises, particularly in Bangladesh where there are no boundaries between ownership and editorial policy, is that the conglomerates have clear commercial interests in not reporting news or investigations that could create difficulties for their non-media businesses. And since in Bangladesh these conglomerates have businesses operating in such a wide variety of sectors, this can have a very broad effect.
The Centre for Governance Studies report notes that there were three particular sectors these conglomerates had wide overlapping business presences: energy, real estate and financial sectors. All sectors notorious for corrupt and questionable conduct, much of which goes unreported.
As the table below shows, all 23 conglomerates owned businesses in at least one of these sectors, three of them (Bengal, Unique and RAK Ceramics) have businesses in all three and 12 other conglomerates had businesses in two of these sectors. 15 of the media-owning-conglomerates owned businesses in the energy sector; 11 in real estate, and 15 in the financial sector. Out of the 15 conglomerates owning businesses in the financial sector, 10 had ownership stake in a private bank and 8 in insurance companies.