Monday, October 25, 2004

Bangladesh: The 'violet' in our Yellow Journalism


The media, through some peculiarities of behaviour, always seem to be in the mood to embarrass the government. Progress, development, public welfare, you name it. The overall assessment that you can draw from the way the finance minister and the commerce secretary have pounced on the media is that at this point in time, it is the press 'newspapers and television' which is instrumental in giving the country a bad name. If Transparency International takes it upon itself to describe Bangladesh, for the fourth time in a row, as the most corrupt of nations on earth, the responsibility for such humiliation lies with the media in the country. Give us our aubergine before you go into the business of putting the media on trial for treason.


The minister, the media and our aubergines

The world outside our frontiers does not know, Saifur Rahman reminds us, of the yellow journalism which dominates so much of our media thinking. In other words, it is because of the media that the government is not being able to transform this country into a land of milk and honey. The media, through some peculiarities of behaviour, always seem to be in the mood to embarrass the government, writes Syed Badrul Ahsan

Saifur Rahman has, to all intents and purposes, declared war on the nation's media. He tells us that when he reads newspapers in the morning, he is upset. He informs us, without batting an eyelid, that if there is any one group of people responsible for the country's coming by a bad image abroad, it is the media. He pillories the media for not taking into account, for not projecting, the many 'positive' aspects of national activity. The media, by focusing on such issues as the rising prices of daily necessities, are doing a bad thing. They are fussing over such insignificant issues as the price of aubergines in the market. And echoing him, the secretary of the ministry of commerce feels that the media are carrying things a bit too far. Why, after all, must the media zero in on the prices of certain goods when there are other items for the people to partake of?

The overall assessment that you can draw from the way the finance minister and the commerce secretary have pounced on the media is that at this point in time, it is the press 'newspapers and television' which is instrumental in giving the country a bad name. If Transparency International takes it upon itself to describe Bangladesh, for the fourth time in a row, as the most corrupt of nations on earth, the responsibility for such humiliation lies with the media in the country. The world outside our frontiers does not know, Saifur Rahman reminds us, of the yellow journalism which dominates so much of our media thinking. In other words, it is because of the media that the government is not being able to transform this country into a land of milk and honey.

The media, through some peculiarities of behaviour, always seem to be in the mood to embarrass the government. Progress, development, public welfare, you name it.

Everything is coming to naught because of the inimical role the media have clearly decided to play when it comes to dealing with the powers that be. That is the lesson to be drawn from the way the finance minister has been talking about the media. It is just too bad the media do not behave. Maybe it is just too bad that there are no autocrats to bring the media to heel?

But let that be. We will not talk about Transparency International, for that upsets our politicians, especially those in office. Despite every truth those good people at Transparency - and we are speaking of our own people in the Bangladesh chapter of the organisation - may choose to reveal, our ministers are unwilling to recognise them or their reports.

The implication is that Transparency is lying, weaving a net of conspiracy around us, indeed at TIB there are people who are playing a definitively unpatriotic role. We will deal with the Transparency question later, if at all. But let us begin with that aubergine issue. Or put it all in local parlance. It is that vegetable we call begoon, that aubergine, which is at the root of all this ministerial exasperation. He does not appear to understand, and neither does the bureaucrat so eager to go an extra mile to defend the rise in prices, that the aubergine has been one of the staples for the Bengali.

To complain that the price of aubergines is not a big deal is to lose sight of the reality. Minister, if the prices of essentials go up, it is the responsibility of the media to inform the country that the administration is not up to the job, that there is incompetence all around. When ministers and bureaucrats should be feeling embarrassed at the fact that they cannot ensure reasonable prices in the market, cannot break the rice syndicate so determined to hoard the staple, it remains the sacred responsibility of the media to report the truth. Why should anyone complain? More to the point, if any minister complains about the audacity of the media in reporting market conditions, so be it. Do the media care? Should they care?

The truth that ours is a corrupt society, that it has been made corrupt over the years is not something cooked by the media in a cauldron around which witches have danced. Let us speak of the national image. But let us begin with some ministerial pronouncements first. The foreign minister chooses the wrong audience and the wrong phrases for his India-bashing. Now the finance minister would, if he could, send the national media into exile. There are other such expressions of ministerial disappointment we could cite. We choose not to.

Now let us move on, with that national image thing. It is not the media's fault that the British High Commissioner came under attack in Sylhet. Or is it? We do not suppose the media had in any way advised Christine Wallich of the World Bank to leave the country and stay away until the government of Bangladesh guaranteed her security. Or is there any evidence that the media were involved in some kind of conspiracy in the Wallich affair?

The media have been reporting, faithfully, everything around the 21 August explosions at the Awami League rally. That no progress has been made toward nabbing the culprits behind the incident is the unadulterated truth. That there has been no discussion of the incident in Parliament, that no one on the treasury bench has been worried about the absence of any deliberations on the issue is a reality no one, and that includes our ministers and their friends, can run away from. The media have been reporting all these instances of how a nation is belittled, how it suffers from a loss of self-esteem. But the minister thinks they have not been doing a good job. Indeed, the functionaries of the government would much rather the nation?s newspersons stayed away from all such analyses of how government has been failing to do what it was elected to do. There is crime being committed all over the country. There are political elements all involved in the commission of such crime. A key witness to the murder of Ahsanullah Master is arrested and ends up dead.

The Rapid Action Battalion takes criminals into custody. Hours later, we the people are informed that these criminals have died in cross fires. That is a surefire way of making certain that their godfathers remain out of the net. You spot a shipload of arms on the banks of the Karnaphuli and yet you will not inquire into the identities of those involved. Throughout the country, a well-organised conspiracy is on to run the Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation off the roads in order for private bus owners to hijack the transport sector. There are the bad smells of a scam in the CNG auto rickshaw sector, but no one in government is prepared to inquire into the matter.

But what do the media do? In the absence of democratic institutions (mere voting at the polling stations is by no means a formalisation of democratic pluralism), the media play the role that politicians ought to have played. There is no sign of the judiciary being separated from the executive. An independent anti-corruption commission is a thought the authorities are not comfortable with. And there is little enthusiasm in government about the establishment of a free human rights commission. The media talk about these issues. It is the media which report on the bad water people in Mirpur Senpara have been drinking for a long time. Neither the minister of state nor his bureaucratic underlings saw any need, before that report, to make a visit to the area. It was the media which reported, day after day after day, on the gradual disappearance of Basila village in the Buriganga. The local Member of Parliament was nowhere to be found, until he was corralled by his constituents into visiting the place.

And so the media have been tarnishing the image of the country? No, Minister. It is because of the media that a semblance of civility remains in this country. We do not make any pretence that our media are an enlightened lot. Neither do we believe that that the media are absolutely free. Newsmen and women in this country suffer from the pains and afflictions which come of politics, of their willingness to take sides. But you have to grant it to our media: most men and women in the profession do a thoroughly professional job, or try to do one. If that upsets the sensibilities of politicians, the media cannot help it.

And as for that small matter of aubergines, here is the patent truth: the authorities have not been able to reassure us that we will continue to savour the taste of the vegetable. And how are you supposed to respond to the fact that green chilli, aubergines, tomatoes, onions, rice, et al, are slipping out of our reach, all because the government has no way of dealing with the syndicate, the criminal gang of dishonest traders, that has spread its tentacles around these basic necessities?

Give us our aubergine before you go into the business of putting the media on trial for treason.

New Age 25/10/2004