'The medium is the message'?

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Category : Shelley

nforming, and forming, the world. Star file photo
Mizanur Rahman Shelley
THE view from the sun-lit terrace of Paro’s Zwiling hotel was breathtaking. High mountains of the majestic Himalayans range reached for the sky. The Kingdom of Bhutan, now a fledgling democracy, nestled cosily in the loving lap of the picturesque mountains.

Paro, the second biggest town in the land and its lone airport wore a festive look. The quiet of its cool summer continued to be broken by the fanfare of arrival of VVIPs and VIPs from eight member countries of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation — Saarc.

During the last week of April, they were landing at Paro to drive some 54 km of winding mountain roads to the Bhutanese capital Thimpu. There they assembled to participate in the 16th Saarc Summit meeting, the first ever to be held in Bhutan.

Paro was no match for Thimpu. However, it too had a touch of glory as seasoned and renowned journalists from Saarc countries gathered there to attend the 5th Saarc Media Summit. Such “meetings” have been a regular feature of the last five Saarc Summits. These parallel events are organised by the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA), an associate organisation of the Saarc.

The Media Summit at Paro was participated by members of the SAFMA, and those of the Media Commissions and South Asia Women in Media in various Saarc countries. Bangladesh participated in the conference with an 11-member contingent composed of media persons and members of relevant NGOs and civil society organisations.

The Media Summit was inaugurated on April 26 by Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley, who also inaugurated the Saarc Summit in Thimpu. Prime Minister Thinley, in his inaugural address at the Media Summit, made a masterly presentation on the theme of the Silver Jubilee Saarc Summit — “Climate Change: Green and Happy.” He did more.

His vivid portrayal of the emerging, young democracy of Bhutan was cogently linked with the unique Bhutanese concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as contrasted with the familiar yardstick of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Questioning the efficacy of growth-oriented economic development, he held this squarely responsible for both global environmental degeneration and the recent disastrous financial crisis and devastating recession worldwide.

Prime Minister Thinley sounded a clarion call to the media, especially the South Asian media, to play a vital role in making democracy vibrant and meaningful. He also urged the media to work for correcting the course of development to ensure environmentally sound and sustainable development (ESSD).

His appeal was elegant: “I believe that the media have the added responsibility in emerging democracies, where the literacy rate is low, of educating the people on the real values of democracies, going beyond elections. Democracy and GNH are all about giving the public the right information because an uninformed public, without critical thinking skills, is considered undemocratic in nature, and a democratic system without an educated constituency that understands political debate cannot be democratic. Media must mean transparency in government and governance, thus deepening democracy.”

Dwelling on the profound role of media in the broader context, Premier Thinley eloquently observed: “It is the media that can help the world garner the political will and courage to undertake a paradigm shift that will bring about fundamental changes in the way international and national security, finance, politics and power are structured and conducted. Journalists, now more than ever, need to understand issues ranging from economics to science and development. You must play a constructive role in channeling your passion and your desire for change by exploring ways out and offering solutions, being both torchbearer and public watchdog. Our media must expose the illusory nature of wealth as illustrated by the Great Depression, the recent Asian financial crisis and the global economic recession. The paradigm shift will, however, entail unfathomable social ramifications. Are we ready to undertake it?”

He also underscored the moral role of media as he remarked: “The premise here is that media must be more than a watchdog for society and public space for discourse. Media must perform a critical public function because they are expressing values all the time and, thereby, cultivating the public mind. Therefore, media must help society to process, define and promote the right values that contribute to the happiness of the individual and well-being of society.”

Critically assessing the undesirable inroad of commercialism in the media world, he said: “Gross National Happiness, in essence, conveys a strong caution against the tide of commercialism that is driving media towards the lowest common denominator, against the seduction of society by blatant materialism, against the voices of professional journalists being drowned by authoritarian leaders, corporate owners, advertisers, and even against poor journalism. We see, in our region, that commercially driven global media has become a pure business activity with little regard for people and people’s interests.” Calling for a massive change of direction from globalisation to “glocalisation,” Premier Thinley asserted: “The media must help construct cultures that will build creative nations so that cultural diversity does not become painful difference.”

He further said: “It is important for media to understand what the average person thinks and feels, their daily concerns about housing, roads and parking, litter, safety on the streets. You must give us, and our children, healthy role models.” His final words were moving: “As a citizen of South Asia I appeal to you, the leaders of South Asian journalism, to see your audience — readers, listeners, and viewers — as citizens, not consumers.”

The timely call by the Bhutanese leader strikes a responsive chord in many discerning hearts. Nevertheless, the question that remains is whether the reality is conducive to the creation of favourable conditions in which the media can play a desirable role.

The media do not exist and operate in isolation. Media organisations work within societies which are organic entities. Their parts are interconnected and interdependent. Pathology in one leads to ailments in others.

Marshall McLuhan asserted in the 1960s: “The medium is the message.” If media now have to create and communicate a message beyond themselves they will need robust support from the society at large. Otherwise Premier Thinley’s clarion call may drown in deafening silence.

Dr. Mizanur Rahman Shelly, founder, Chairman of Centre for Development Research, Bangladesh (CDRB) and Editor, quarterly Asian Affairs, is Chairman of non-government Bangladesh Media Commission. He is a former teacher of Dhaka University and former member of the erstwhile Civil Service of Pakistan (CSP) and former technocrat Cabinet Minister.

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