Monday, June 28, 2010

Ministers and the Media

Published in The Independent
M. Serajul Islam

The dramatic exchanges between the State Minister for Public Works and a leading land developer of the country that was for some very strange reasons allowed to be videotaped by TV channels and later shown on the TV had many thinking about governance. In what many of us saw and were flabbergasted, the Minister was very much told to get lost by the land developer.

The issue over which the Minister and the land developer fought was the Dhaka Area Plan. In recent times, due to a number of accidents and other problems faced by Dhaka city of which water logging is a major one, a great deal of attention is being focused upon land developers who have grabbed what is Dhaka’s natural drainage system and have made Dhaka unlivable in the rainy season. The Minister over extended this issue and made some un-necessary and humiliating remarks that some of the land developers took personally that led one of them in particular to react the way he did that, courtesy the TV channels, many of us had the pleasure or displeasure of watching.

In another twist in this saga, the Minister later said in the media that a sensible government cannot bring down constructions made illegally because this would disadvantage many who have not been themselves responsible for the illegal constructions in the first instance. In other words, the Minister has tamely surrendered to the land developers in general and to the particular land developer with whom he had that strange alteration. Questions have now arisen in the public mind about hidden strength of the land developer to openly humiliate the Minister and get away with it.

Without going into the issue of who was right and who was wrong, the Minister’s tame surrender did not add to the image of the Ministers who as a group do not have high public rating. It is not just this Minister who has somersaulted on stands taken in public before the media. Many Ministers of this Government have done this quite frequently. The State Minister of Law is one whose name comes readily to mind. He has somersaulted on the issue of President Ziaur Rahman, calling him a Pakistani collaborator and then acknowledging his role in our liberation war.

One wonders why Ministers behave this way. In case of the Minister for Works, the fact that he was seen on the private TV screen being challenged by a land developer raises serious questions about the way changes have come in running of the government as a consequence of explosion in the information sector through the emergence of the private TV channels. These days, Ministers like to appear on the TV screen as often as they can. The private TV channels follow the Ministers for stories as a commercial commodity. Although both the Ministers and the media believe that by speaking freely on the TV channels they serve the cause of the public’s right of information, it is anything but information that they give the public. Most of the time, it is a party or a personal agenda that Ministers give through the media in the name of the public’s right of information.

The State Minister for Law’s meaningless attack of President Ziaur Rahman was one instance where the Minister used the media to serve a party agenda as well as a personal one. The Minister perhaps thought that the issue would be a right one to attack the BNP which is an unwritten agenda of the ruling party. The Minister perhaps also thought that by attacking the late President, he would also be able to come into attention of the Prime Minister. When the attack backfired, the Minister made an about turn that neither did his image nor that of the Government any good. In fact, a lot of times, Ministers speak to the TV channels not for the sake of the public but to attract the attention of the Prime Minister as their access to her is very restricted.

There is a serious error of perception here about how a democratic government functions and how much of information a government is obliged to give to the public. More important of all, there is also the question whether the public is at all interested in learning like a running commentary what the government is doing.. A great deal of the business of the government in all systems is conducted out of the glare of the public. It is best that they are conducted that way. All decisions of the government are not in black and white and there are choices that have to be made all the time based on information and other sources that cannot be made public for a variety of reasons.. In certain cases, such as decisions reached in the Foreign Ministry and related Ministries that deal with foreign governments, information cannot be given as demanded by the public for obvious reasons. However, all these do not mean that the Government has the right to act without accountability. In all governments, the parliaments act as the watchdog for the public in ensuring that the executive branch of the government that in the public parlance in countries like ours is equated with the government itself, is not only made accountable but in a way that is transparent and meets all the demands of the public’s right of information.

However, the above does not rule out the media of its right of information on behalf of the public. They have every right to do so but they should gather such information without creating the drama we have seen in the exchanges between the State Minister for Land and the land developer. The way to do so rests entirely on the Ministers. They should set things right. They have to take into view the fact that Ministers everywhere appear before the media only in case of an emergency. If there is a railway accident involving deaths of hundreds of people, the media will ask questions of the Minister of Communication. Sometimes, Ministers may also find it necessary to appear before the media to explain an important agenda of the Government. However, even in such cases, Ministers should remain out of the media unless they have a well coordinated approach to such an interaction with the media. We have seen that when our Ministers under the present government tried to do so, as has been in the case with the BDR carnage and trial of war criminals, they have ended giving contradictory statements, ending up by confusing the people, where the right of dissemination of information to the public was hardly served at all.

The Ministers, for their sake and the Government’s , need to come out of their current over indulgence with the media, and particularly TV glare and let the media gather information from the spokesman of the Ministry. There was a time when such information was regularly given to the media by the Public Relations Officer whose main job was keeping contact with them. The PROs did a very good job then but as Ministers felt the need to appear before the media and as media expanded, the job of the PRO has fallen by the way side although the post itself is there in every Government Ministry. To take the Government out of the mess into which some of the Ministers have taken it, it is time to revive the role of the PRO and designate him as the official spokesman of the Ministry. At present, a Ministry’s PRO is a junior level officer. In recognition to the media right to gather information of the work of the Government, the PRO’s position could be enhanced to the level of a Joint Secretary or in the important Ministries, to that of an Additional Secretary. The media l, on a need basis, will of course have the right to approach the Minister, but only through the Ministry’s spokesman.

Ensuring transparency in the functions of the Government is primarily the role of the Parliament and not the media that has a secondary role. Unfortunately in our country, the reverse has happened because the parliament has not been allowed to function as it does in other democracies. The consequence of this reversal is the drama and disinformation that we watch and read about these days on a regular basis. It is time to set the system in the correct mode by restricting the interaction of the Ministers with the media. Governance after all is not all drama; a great portion of it is hard work behind the desk of the Ministers.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt.

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