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Sushmita S Preetha
Although children under 18 constitute almost half the population of the country, their voices are severely underrepresented in all forms of media. Despite a growing media industry around the world specifically aimed at children, their content continues to be decided by adults who think they are in better positions to dictate the views of children.
The media provide very limited opportunities for children to exercise both their right to participate in media and their right to express their views on issues that affect them. Adults often underestimate the knowledge, life experiences and opinions of children, refusing to acknowledge that they might have a nuanced way of approaching an issue.
“Whenever I try to express myself, I can feel the adults around me give me a look that says, ‘You are a child, what do YOU know?’ even though the topic at hand is something that is close to my heart,” said 14-year-old Halima Sharif, an avid reader who takes an interest in politics and current affairs. “They treat me like a baby – like I am ignorant of the world around me,” she added.
Issues that affect children are often delegated to the sidelines in mainstream media, with a tiny fraction of programmes and newspaper contents focusing on child rights and the plight of children.
“Even though children don’t have the right to vote, they are entitled to social, political and economic rights as laid out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Our country is a signatory to the Convention,” said Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu.
He argued that mass media can play a very crucial role in ensuring child rights. “If a state or non-state actor violates a child’s right, then children, through mass media, can highlight the injustice and demand that the state intervene,” he opined.
He said that the media must ensure the physical participation of children and urged print media to create a special platform for child journalists to voice their concerns and opinions.
According to two surveys conducted by UNICEF in 2009 and 2011, only three per cent of the news highlighted by mainstream media deals with children, of which two per cent are accident-related and other news. Only one per cent of news deals with child rights-related issues.
There are, however, some programmes on radio, TV and print media that can serve as positive examples of child participation in media. Made of, for and by children, these programmes bring issues such as child labour, trafficking, eve teasing, violence against children, adolescence health, nutrition and sanitation and effects of environmental degradation on children to the forefront of national discourses. In addition, they also assist children develop communication skills, team work, creativity and confidence.
Shishuder Chokhe (In the eyes of children), for instance, is a one-of-a-kind programme on ATN Bangla whereby child reporters generate, write and shoot their own news stories. Six reporters from diverse backgrounds produce news items that are broadcast every Friday at 7 pm and 10 pm during primetime news.
Mohammad Hasan Mahmud Nabil, who studies in Class IX of Pagla High School in Naraynganj, said that he first wanted to be a journalist to portray the plight of children in his area. “Many children here cannot afford an education and I thought that if I become a reporter, I can highlight this issue and urge the government to intervene,” he explained.
Since he started reporting more than one and a half years ago, Nabil has reported on issues such as the condition of street children in Kamalapur Rail Station during winter, the implications of children bathing in and using the polluted water of Buriganga river, the negative impact of Doraemon cartoon on children and the importance of Book Fair.
Initiated by UNICEF, the programme is produced with the joint partnership of Children’s Television Foundation of Bangladesh and ATN Bangla. A majority of the six child reporters come from underprivileged backgrounds and hence offer valuable insights on multiple forms of child exploitation.
Head of news division at ATN Bangla Z.I. Mamun believes that the news segment by children can reach a much wider audience than regular programmes on children in different channels since the latter’s audience is limited.
Meanwhile, the first-ever ‘Children’s News Service’ in Bangladesh, hello.bdnews24.com, a specialised website titled ‘Hello’ was launched earlier this year, featuring children and adolescent journalists aged between 10 and 17 years.
The journalists were chosen through written and oral tests from around 3,000 aspirants from 20 most deprived districts by the UNICEF to work with the staff of bdnews24.com, who conducted a workshop with the selected children.
Alif Mohammad Nur Nishan, Cox’s Bazar correspondent, said, “This initiative will enable children to represent and highlight the problems that most affect children.”
Amader Kotha or Our Voice is another UNICEF-supported monthly prime-time programme on Bangladesh Television that enables children from diverse backgrounds to quiz the country’s prominent policymakers on issues relevant to their lives.
Children, including children on the street, working children, orphans and child journalists, get 45 minutes to ask any relevant question they want to the person being interviewed, without censorship. To encourage more policymakers to follow suit, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself participated in the first episode of the show, when a 14-year-old vegetable vendor asked if her government could ensure education of children from underprivileged backgrounds.
In another episode, state minister for Labour and Employment Minister Begum Monnujan Sufian was asked what the government can do to stop violence against domestic workers and also hazardous child labour. Finance Minister Abul Mal Abdul Muhit was quizzed on how the government spends the revenue earned from income tax, what budgetary steps have been taken to bridge the gap between urban and rural students and why the budget is usually followed by a price hike.
The 20 children in each episode are selected from around the country, and are mostly from marginalised backgrounds. They are then given prior training at Bangladesh National Institute of Mass Communication.
Bangladesh Radio produces a show, also in association with UNICEF, called “This is Meena Speaking” where the well-known character of Meena, played by Farzana Islam and Mithu, played by Sajid Pasha, engages children in phone conversations, games, quizzes and written correspondence on a given topic pertaining to children.
Although only four episodes have been aired so far, it has already gained a huge fan following, informed Omar Sharif, the producer of the show. “The main objective of the show is to create awareness among people about child rights in a way that is easily accessible,” he said.