"Burke (Philosopher and Statesman Mr Edmund Burke was an MP in the House of Commons in the UK) said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all"
-On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and The Heroic in History by Thomas Carlyle
We often talk about strengthening institutions in our quest to strengthen democratic norms. Institutions are important as good institutions can create a system of checks and balances in a proper democracy. If we consider the social institutions along with the formal institutions, the strongest of the lot is undoubtedly the press/news media.
The crux of the news media has always been journalism and it has been considered as a social institution for a long time now. Journalism has always been tightly attached to every other social institution with its role to hold others accountable. While playing this role, journalism enjoys a certain level of autonomy that other institutions rarely enjoy.
The press was termed as the Fourth Estate arguably by the British politician Edmund Burke. At that time, the other three Estates were the Clergy/Church (First Estate), the Nobility (Second Estate) and the representatives of the common people (Third Estate). Although the power of the First Estate reduced significantly in many of the democracies around the world, the power of the Second Estate still holds in the shape of the wealthy class whereas. In the form of the people's representation, the Third Estate now builds the foundation of modern-day democracy.
The press has been considered as a powerful force which is required to uphold a functioning democracy. Democracy cannot be sustained unless the citizens are well informed of the state affairs.
At the same time, the governing body operating under democracy needs to be aware of the issues which will dictate its way of governing the state. In both these cases, the free press informs the citizens and creates a ground which facilitates the citizens to place their problems for the Government to address. The news media then informs the citizens about the performance of the Government in addressing the issues. After that, the informed citizens can decide whether to reward or reprimand the Government during the election process.
Thus, the news media ensures the most important element in any good democracy, namely the accountability of the Government. The news media also plays the role of shaping people's opinion by presenting factually correct reports and varied opinions. Thus, the news media can contribute to clearing the bias from the thought process of a citizen.
The citizens must make informed decisions. But it is almost impossible for the citizens to do so without any source of information supporting their quest. Biased citizens can always find ways to find news which aligns with their views. This is exactly why news media should strive for nothing short of the finest journalism as its role can have a manifold impact on the democratic scenario of a country.
Now a functional democracy needs its free news media - a news media which will be able to act with autonomy when it comes to addressing the sensitive sides of a state. It is the news media's job to expose the darker underbelly of society. Any kind of repressive law which can influence the quality, scope and nature of fine journalism can restrict democratic practices in a country.
For the people in the governing body, restricting free news media may seem enticing as that presents the allure of a life without stress and seemingly overreach of the Fourth Estate. But it also slowly creates a scenario where the people in the Government increasingly become dependent on state actors who control the execution of the laws and oversee the implementation of such restrictions. Thus, this practice of muzzling the news media may create unforeseen problems even for the political party which runs the Government.
Now let us focus on the news media landscape of Bangladesh. Journalism was never easy in Bangladesh. This profession has employed and still employs some of the bravest souls out there. But evidently, journalism has become more challenging over the years. On top of that, one particular law has restricted the scope of journalism within a tiny area of scope. The law, known as the Digital Security Act, has some of the harshest provisions which have created great impediments for the press.
The term "innocent until proven guilty" took the backbench under the repressive nature of this law. Overenthusiastic people have made it their habit to use this law flagrantly in order to stifle even the true voices out there. That culture in turn has effectively stifled the voice of the Fourth Estate in the country. The result did not bode well for any of the stakeholders in our country.
Even the press has its own biases. But restricting its freedom is not the way to confront it. Stifling the news media also provides extreme power to state machinery. That in turn creates a dependency on those state machinery which in turn creates lethargy and induces low morale among the party activists as well as drains vision from them.
The ruling party might find it easier to govern on their own terms under such a scenario with the eyes of the Fourth Estate shut close. But it must be kept in mind that it also empowers non-political state machinery to gain influence in controlling the whole government. This way may very well reduce the power of the leader rather than reinforcing it.
On the other hand, the news media in our country also needs to self-reflect. We have seen a takeover of the news media by large corporate houses. The influence of the corporate houses has given birth to narratives that seldom give space to criticism. There are plenty of examples where rival business groups used their news media entities to sully the reputation of each other. This culture has done no good to the status of journalism in our country. This kind of practice must not be there in a scenario where we want to see an excellent Fourth Estate playing its due roles.
Stifling the press can never bring prosperity to a democracy. If there is bias in the news media narrative, it is better to confront that narrative politically rather than undemocratically. That practice in return energizes the party activists and balances the power of the state to control the lives of the citizens.
As such, the Government must allow discourses regarding any kind of controversial issues as that will strengthen the fabric of democracy. That will also strengthen the Government as it will have the backing of an informed populace rather than the distrust of an uninformed one.
For Bangladesh to prosper, we need an effective Fourth Estate playing its roles and there is absolutely no alternative to that.
Aamer Mostaque Ahmed is the Executive Director of the Youth Policy Forum (YPF)
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.