Bangladeshis have been looking to the press for leadership in a time of military rule, but the journalists have allowed themselves to be bullied by populism and cowed by fear of authority.
On 11 January, Bangladesh’s interim government announced a state of emergency, and a censorship regime was imposed on the country’s media. The following day, the editor of the English-language The Daily Star, Mahfuz Anam, declared: “We believe this move to be against the interest of democracy and of Bangladesh. Just as mistakes after mistakes have brought us to this stage of political crisis, the decision of gagging the press is nothing but a continuation of those mistaken decisions.” A few days later, Anam wrote an angry editorial about receiving a phone call from an unknown caller giving him “press advice”. He promised that his paper would never abdicate its responsibility under such pressure.
Four months later, even after Bangladeshi journalists had been detained by the authorities for their writings, the Daily Star editorial of 8 May was much more conciliatory. On the subject of Chief Adviser Fakhruddin Ahmed, it read:
Actually, there has been no dearth of commitment on his part to press freedom since he took over, but there are certain parts of the government which didn’t seem to act in sync with his ideas. Some organs of the government have proved intrusive, making telephone calls, inviting journalists to talk and giving them advice and directives including issuing media advisory and press notes curbing press freedom.
The contrast in the language used by these two editorials speaks volumes about the Bangladeshi media’s precarious position over the last four months. On the one hand, the papers had to deal with the restrictions imposed upon them; on the other hand, they tried to play an activist role for potential political change. This, coupled with the lack of standards and consistency, as well as owners’ economic interests, has meant that the media’s position has come to be both difficult and confusing. But what has become obvious as the months have passed is an overzealousness to protect and support the current military-backed caretaker government. Given this, Bangladesh’s vanguard Bangla and English-language press has lost its credibility – something that may prove costly in the long term.
To understand the current media situation in Bangladesh, one needs to look back to a bit of its recent history. The national press saw tremendous change during the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a number of new dailies stormed the marketplace, bringing with them a new emphasis on investigative reporting. As the middle class expanded and international 24-hour news channels invaded the country, the taste for ‘quality’ in the news also grew. With Bangla dailies having saturated the market, each of the papers sought to capture specific niches, by developing individualised brands of partisan journalism. While this got dailies such as Janakantha, Inquilab, Ittefaq and Jugantor their huge readerships, they lost influence and the ability to shape public opinion due to their partisan positions.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh’s rich and powerful began to invest heavily in the print media, with an eye towards increasing their influence in business negotiations. There were also a few promoters with larger visions for the industry, such as S M Ali and Mahfuz Anam of the Daily Star, and Naimul Islam Khan and Matiur Rahman of Bhorer Kagoj. Together, these individuals were responsible for the evolution of a ‘modern’ journalism in Bangladesh. Over the years, the Daily Star and Prothom Alo (the latter created when Matiur Rahman broke away from Bhorer Kagoj in 1998) gained stature for objective and non-partisan positioning on issues, and steadily grew to become collectively the highest-circulating papers in the country.
As more young Bangladeshis took up journalism as a profession, the quality of reporting continued to rise. With the demand for personnel in the electronic media, the competition for able journalists became intense. But while the size of the media sector increased exponentially over the past decade, it is safe to say that there was stagnation when it came to improving standards. What did and did not get published increasingly became something of a mystery, and such decisions lacked consistency. The freedom of the media came to be commonly regarded as an indulgence of the powerful, rather than as a right.
That the Bangladeshi media would not be able to sustain pressure during times of crises was first predicted three years ago by journalist (and Himal Southasian contributing editor) Afsan Chowdhury. In his book Media in Times of Crisis, Chowdhury observed that powerful business houses had captured much of the print-media space, and highlighted the fact that journalism in Bangladesh had been significantly tied in with various other economic and business interests. The growth of the industry seemed not to have been matched by an increase in quality, as was the initial promise. Various systemic problems were not being addressed.
The trend Chowdhury described accelerated over the last three years, with Dhaka awash with black money, thanks to cronies of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government. Partisan journalism flourished as never before and, reflecting the polarisation in politics, the motivation behind the publishing of any news story was questioned by suspicious observers. One was having to interpret the news based on the identity of the newspaper’s owner. As the interim government’s anti-corruption drive followed the imposition of the state of emergency in January this year, some of its frontline targets were the owners of these media houses. One after another, the owners of Janakantha, Jugantor, Jai Jai Din, Shomokal, Ittefaq and NTV came under the anti-corruption dragnet.
Although editors at these organisations were left largely unharmed, the government’s message had gone out loud and clear. In turn, editors imposed strict self-censorship. As such, there was very little media discussion of the government’s disregard of due process, or its abuse of the judiciary to fit its needs. Instead, sensational headlines, often leaked by the government itself, took centre stage – for instance, stories of outlandish bank accounts belonging to Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina made the rounds, only to disappear after the chief of the National Board of Revenue issued a denial.
The vanguard sister publications Daily Star and Prothom Alo proved a disappointment, perhaps made cautious by their by now considerable financial stakes. As the regime of Khaleda Zia and the Awami League opposition of Sheikh Hasina continued their vainglorious stand off, Prothom Alo decidedly echoed the public sentiment that politics-as-usual had failed, but it went one step further to look towards the cantonments for a solution to the padlocked politics. Prothom Alo’s usually reticent editor Matiur Rahman came live on television to implore the armed services to “save the nation” from chaos and anarchy. When a draconian emergency ordinance was promulgated on 12 January, curbing all fundamental rights, there was little protest from most of the papers. Prothom Alo proclaimed that because the political parties had failed, it was indeed time for the armed forces to play a much greater role.
When the lines get blurred between a newspaper’s job of disseminating objective news and its desire to act as a country’s saviour, alternative views fail to make it from the editor’s desk to the public. In the absence of a parliament and in the suspension of fundamental rights, the Bangladeshi media had the responsibility of emerging as the country’s voices of reason and as a counter-balance to the government. Looking back over the past about five months since the take over by the interim government, it is clear that a certain level of consistency was significantly lacking, particularly in demanding due process.
Barring a few exceptions, such as the New Age and the Shomokal, the editorials in most newspapers have generally not dared to cross a certain line when discussing government appointments, key policy decisions, arbitrary rule by ordinance, and the actions of the military.
The media coverage till date has been marked by cheerleading for any step taken by the military-backed caretaker government, without critical analysis. The regime’s botched plan for the undemocratic exile of Begum Zia and Sheikh Hasina was not met by criticism from the media; indeed, the dailies generally cheered the move. When Begum Zia’s son, Arafat Rahman, was taken into detention and released only after his mother reportedly agreed to leave the country, the sheer barbarity of abusing a mother’s anguish for political purpose was not challenged by the leading papers, which greeted the matter with deafening silence.
By the end of February, Dhaka-based journalists began receiving regular phone calls with threatening ‘press advice’ for articles that were even remotely critical of the regime. The situation was far worse outside of Dhaka, where local journalists were being called “for tea” to military precincts. When a correspondent of the Daily Star, E A M Asaduzzaman Tipu, was arrested for offending the district commissioner in Nilphamari, editor Mahfuz Anam reacted with a surprisingly mild editorial. Although the paper deigned to publish strong opinion pieces from time to time, if only to maintain its position as the most high-profile newspaper in the country, it has come under an increasingly critical spotlight, often for news it was not publishing rather than for what it was.
The headlines of Daily Star’s sister paper Prothom Alo have been even more tendentious, often seeming to be specifically timed to help the government’s position. Rather conveniently, when the regime was attempting to exile the two begums, stories of infighting within the two parties, and lower-ranking leaders questioning the BNP and AL leaders, were given wide coverage. Prothom Alo and other newspapers took to publishing news from unnamed sources from inside the government, with no corroboration or follow up. Part of this timidity stemmed from the fact the interim government was enjoying huge popularity among the public, and no editor wanted to be the odd man out.
By responsibly critiquing the authorities, these news organisations would have been able to help the government help the people. While valiant young journalists spoke out against the suppression during an event to mark World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, newspaper coverage was devoted instead to the photo-op event set up by the US ambassador for the occasion. Previous charges of corruption against a sitting election commissioner, retired Brigadier Shakhawat Hossain, were published in only two newspapers. Similarly, news about the alleged torture and murder of indigenous leader Cholesh Richil, at an army camp in mid-March, received hardly any coverage in the national media, barring a few op-ed pieces. When Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, arguably the country’s most popular columnist, wrote about Richil’s demise in Prothom Alo, the column was blocked by his editor for nearly a month.
The citizens’ journal
Ever since the interim government’s popularity started its dive in April, the regime has been becoming increasingly touchy about criticism, and has clamped down harder on dissent. Doing so has been significantly complicated, however, due to relatively widespread urban access to the Internet, which has made available international media sources and, importantly, Bangladeshi websites and blogs. Indeed, the Bangladeshi blog has come of age as a citizens’ journal in the current environment. Even after the censorship of Himal Southasian’s May issue (which was allowed to be distributed only after two Bangladesh-related stories were physically removed from the magazine), the magazine’s website continues to be accessible within Bangladesh. It seems the authorities recognise the power of new media, as Daily Star journalist Tasneem Khalil was dramatically arrested shortly after midnight on 11 May for writings he had posted on his blog.
Khalil, a human-rights consultant and an outspoken critic of military rule, had highlighted the case surrounding Cholesh Richil online; and had also written for the Daily Star’s monthly magazine, Forum, about the link between Khaleda Zia’s elder son, Tareque Rahman, and his appointees at the national intelligence service with militant outfits such as the International Khatme Nabuwat Movement. However, that issue of Forum was pulled off the stands by its editor, and was only reprinted without the article. Following Khalil’s arrest, an appeal from his wife went out to his e-mail contacts, and Bangladeshi bloggers sprang into action – printing the censored article, contacting international human-rights organisations and politicians, and generally spreading the word of the detention. Even after mainstream news websites in Bangladesh had blacked out reports of Khalil’s arrest, his status was constantly updated on his blog. Within 24 hours, a worldwide campaign to free Khalil had sprung into action.
Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam did subsequently go to the army camp where Khalil was being held, and it is partially due to his influence that Khalil was released after 23 hours. Nonetheless, Anam’s considerable credibility was damaged by the meek press statement that he put out during the episode, in which he noted that he had been informed that Khalil’s arrest had been due not to his work for the Daily Star, but to what he had posted on his website. Anam went on to baldly state that it was “because of the caretaker government’s policy for the freedom of the media” that a release had been agreed upon.
By April, four months after his courageous commentary on press freedoms at the time of the military takeover, Anam seemed to have come full circle with his tepid statement on Khalil’s release. This episode encapsulates the situation of the Bangladeshi media under military rule, in which the partisan press is cowed by strong-arm tactics, while the commercially powerful media seek to deprive the public (the very public that made them powerful) of its right to be informed. This has been coupled with a lack of daring to challenge the populist tide that carried the consuming classes in the initial months of the military regime. It would be prudent for the long-term health of the media, and of Bangladesh itself, if editors were to be steadfastly vocal about their freedom to print and publish as they see fit.