Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), the noted Scottish essayist, historian and a leading philosopher of Victorian era, and many others of his time mentioned that the ‘Media is the Fourth Pillar of Democracy’. The other three pillars are (a) the judiciary; (b) the legislature; and (c) the executive.
When any of these pillars crumbles or shakes, the entire democratic process faces the danger of collapsing. When one talks about media it is meant that it will be free from any prejudice and be with truth and nothing by the truth and under no circumstances it should have any hidden agenda.
Unfortunately, this ideal expectation has been compromised on a number of occasions, more so in Bangladesh. It is also true that the same media did play very important and constructive role in the hour of national crisis before and after the emergence of Bangladesh.
Virtually all main stream print media played a very significant role during the anti-Ayub movement and the mass upsurge of 1968 and 1969. Even the Pakistan Press Trust-owned Dainik Bangla or Muslim League leaning Dainik Azad were with the people and supported the cause of the people of this country and their fight for the end of Ayub Khan’s Martial Law and return to democracy.
Of course there were Ittefaq and Dainik Sangbad that stayed with the people. The newly published ‘The People’ was not to be left behind. On the other hand Pakistan Observer, published by Hamidul Haq Choudhury, one time Cabinet Minister of Pakistan’s military dictator Ayub Khan, Morning News, Daily Paigham of Muslim League upheld the policies of Ayub Khan and supported his anti-people activities.
Immediately after the Pakistan Army’s crackdown on the people of this country on the night of 25/26 March 1971, one of the first things the Pakistan army did was to burn the offices and printing presses of all the publications that supported cause of the people in this country.
Following the emergence of Bangladesh, few weeklies and dailies became quite irresponsible and began to do everything possible to discredit the government of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman instead of appreciating the fact that he was struggling to restore the war devastated Bangladesh back on its feet braving all sorts of domestic and international conspiracies against him and the country. The year 1974 witnessed a devastating flood in the north of the country, resulting in the failure of two crops and drying up of the food supply across the country. The two sea ports of the country, Chittagong and Mongla were left unusable as the fleeing Pakistani Army mined these two ports. Few countries like former Soviet Union (Russia) and Australia tried to give some food aid but it was very difficult to deliver them at either Chittagong or Mongla Port. To complicate the situation all the major bridges and culverts were destroyed during the war and it took more time for the food to reach the people than it took to reach the ports from the aid giving countries.
United States under its PL480 programme (aid for peace) announced that it would give some food aid to Bangladesh and accordingly it dispatched two ship loads of wheat to Chittagong. This was more of face-saving gesture from the Nixon Administration as they supported the Pakistan genocide in 1971. As the food grain loaded ships approached Chittagong port it received a message from US State Department to turn back as Bangladesh has forfeited its right to receive the food aid for the fact it exported some jute bags to USA’s ‘black-listed’ country Cuba, violating the rules under which countries are not eligible for receiving aid under PL-480 a condition not known to the government of the newly independent Bangladesh. This aggravated the existing food crisis. The then Nixon administration just used food as a weapon to punish Bangladesh for defying its desire to stay with Pakistan.
The media that opposed the creation of Bangladesh or the new government of Bangabandhu worked relentlessly to capitalise on the situation. Some created innovative stories; the most infamous one was created by Dainik Ittefaq’s photo journalist Aftab Ahmed. He travelled all the way to Chilmari village of Rangpur district, one of the hardest hit areas by the flood where food shortage was quite acute and picked up one mentally challenged Bashanti, daughter of a local fisherman. He gave her some money and asked her to put on a fishing net instead of the traditional sari. In those days a low cost sari would be available for about 15 to 20 Taka whereas a fishing net would cost at least 150 taka. Bashanti was asked to pose on a floating raft. Aftab Ahmed just wanted to show the people and the world how the Bangabandhu’s government was inept in handling the food crisis and things went so bad that a poor women in remote village of Chilmari could not afford to wear even a cheap sari and they were starving. The news and the picture was splashed over the front page of Dainik Ittefaq, a paper which from the very inception stood beside the cause of the people of Bangladesh and its founding editor Tofazzal Hossain Manik Mia was highly respected by Bangabandhu. Manik Mia was arrested during the rule of Pakistan’s first military dictator General Ayub Khan and his press seized. Bashanti’s make believe staged and choreographed photograph was picked up by some international media and used to prove their prediction that Bangladesh as an independent nation would not survive for long. The Bashanti episode was one of the many conspiracies against Bangladesh and Bangabandhu. The science fiction like story of Bangabandhu’s eldest son Sheikh Kamal and his friends attempting to break the vaults of Bangladesh Bank was highly imaginative story that contributed further to the conspiracy.
During the three and half year rule of Bangabandhu the country witnessed the rise of arsonists and militants who did everything possible to destabilise the government. The underground parties like Shiraj Shikder’s Sarbahara Party, Revolutionary Communist Party of Abdul Hoque and many others virtually declared crusade against Bangabandhu and his government, and to make things more complicated and difficult a breakaway faction from Awami League and Chhatra League formed another militant group called JSD with the so-called objective of establishing ‘Scientific Socialism’. They also had an underground military outfit called Gonobahini. Police Stations were looted, jute warehouses set on fire and Awami League leaders, including parliament members, assassinated. Many would not remember that some of these extremists fought pitched battles against nascent Bangladesh army in different places like in Rajshahi and Pabna. JSD also published its own daily newspaper, the daily Gonokontho that blew things out of proportion and published fabricated and factious stories. Under such backdrop came the assassination of Bangabandhu and his entire family excepting his two daughters on the fateful night of 15 August 1975. The killing of the Father of the Nation just ushered in the military rule of General Zia and later of General Ershad. The country entered into a dark phase that lasted till the fall of Ershad in 1990.
The above episodes clearly show how media in a country can play a destructive and counterproductive role in the socio-political life of a country. When thinkers like Thomas Carlyle wrote about free media they were not talking about any irresponsible media with some hidden agenda. They were talking about media that would carry objective reports without bias or any prejudice or to propagate any issues that would create tension in society and disturb the social harmony. When Babri Mosque was demolished in India in December 1992 by a group of religious bigots a national daily published from Dhaka hyped the incident unethically and created a communal tension across the country. Based on any news or incidents commentaries or op-eds are regularly published anywhere in the world. In most the cases the print media that publishes such commentaries or op-eds puts a caveat in the bottom saying ‘the views expressed in these articles are that of the writers’. It simply means the writers or the contributors bear the responsibility for what is written or expressed. But no such caveat would apply for any news item. For any news item the publisher and the editor has to take the responsibility besides the person who on the first hand drafts the report. There are many instances where reporters faced punishment for publishing concocted reports.
Jayson Thomas Blair was working as a journalist for the popular US daily The New York Times. He had to resign from the newspaper in May 2003 in the wake of allegations of fabrication and plagiarism of his stories. Blair not only had to lose his job he even had to switch his profession. He established a support group for people with bipolar disorder. Then there is the example of legendary broadcast media personality Walter Cronkite Jr. He served as anchorman for the popular US TV network CBS Evening News for 19 years from 1962 to 1981. During the 1960s and 1970s, he was often cited as the most trusted man in America after being named in an opinion poll. His fame as person of integrity, honesty reached such a height that people believed what he broadcasted as they knew Cronkite would not broadcast which he did not believe to be true. His fame as a person of integrity travelled beyond US boundaries and in 1977 he made an unbelievable breakthrough in a long standing political stalemate in the Middle East and Arab world when he helped bring together Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, in meetings that laid the groundwork for the 1978 Camp David (US) agreements to ease the tension in the region. Cronkite was more trustworthy both to Sadat and Begin than a politician.
Bangladesh also had such trustworthy and professional journalists who put professional ethics in the forefront. People like Tofazzal Hossain Manik Miah, Zahur Hossain Chowdhury, K G Mustafa, Bazlur Rahman, Toab Khan and Faiz Ahmed set examples of building responsible media and objective reporting. They never compromised with their professional ethics and even had to go to jail before the independence of Bangladesh and after. Zahur Hossain Chowdhury, Toab Khan and many such senior editors were arrested during the military rule of BNP’s founder General Zia. The publisher of newly published Daily Ajker Kagoj Kazi Shahed Ahmed, Editor, Naymul Islam Khan and correspondent Syed Borhan Kabir were picked up from the office at night for reporting allegations against a minister’s corruption allegations before he became a minister. They had to spend the night in the police station to be released only on bail from the court the following day. Kazi Shahed Ahmed had to present himself before the court for months.
In the recent times, the country is bustling with controversies and criticisms regarding a news item and a photograph of a seven-year-kid standing in front of the National Martyrs Monument in Savar who was handed out a ten taka note by local reporter of a widely circulated daily newspaper which published a fabricated story putting child in the background. The journalist quoted the child saying ‘If I cannot eat what I shall do with independence. When one goes to the market he sweats due to the rising cost of essentials. We need the freedom of fish, meat and rice.’ This news item was splashed in the lead item of the daily in its on-line version on 26 March, the Independence Day, which to many was akin to making mockery of our Independence, another attempt to discredit the current government which seems to be the regular agenda of this daily. The child’s name was also fabricated and later, on investigation it was found that the story was completely choreographed. The reporter was soon arrested under the Digital Security Act by the members of the law enforcing agencies to be released three days later on bail. A case was also filed against the Editor who obtained an anticipatory bail. The criticism about the placement of the news and its timing is still being criticized, though another section of people from different profession thinks it was wrong to arrest the reporter or to institute a case against the Editor. According to them, it is an infringement on the freedom of expression guaranteed by the Constitution disregarding the fact freedom comes with responsibility. Within hours the United Nations Human Rights Commission and some international media carried the news saying that the reporter was arrested for reporting the rising cost of food prices in Bangladesh and UN Human Rights Commission even went a bit further and demanded that Digital Security Act be suspended immediately, which perhaps is overstepping the limits of the world body. In US children and innocent people are gunned down virtually every day, every week, and so far none of the US governments could do anything about it as the Second Amendment to the US Constitution give Americans the rights to bear arms, and about a third of U.S adults say they personally own a gun. Unfortunately in most of the cases the guns are used to kill innocent people, in most cases school kids. At least five people were killed and six others injured at a shooting at a Bank in Kentucky on 10 April. UN Human Rights Commission was never heard of saying anything against such regular killings in US.
Whenever some media are censured for their seemingly irresponsible and fabricated news, a section of civil society members and international professional bodies or human rights organisations cry foul and condemn the government for trying to infringe on the right to expression of opinion or attempts to gag the press. On 6 April Bank of America Corp had to cut short an online client conference on geopolitics over pro-Russian comments made by certain speakers when discussing the Ukraine war. The report was carried by international news agency Reuters. After Russia’s invasion of Ukraine early last year, major western banks stopped their Russian operations and relocated their staff to other countries. This sudden shortening of the conference by a global bank was made so that it does not go against the interest of US government or the administration.
Regarding suspension of the Digital Security Act, it must be mentioned most countries, including the US and the UK, have such Acts for protecting the interest of the country and its people. Currently dozens of journalists are awaiting trial in many countries, including the US and the UK. A law may have flaws and loopholes; they need to be reviewed regularly and if needed be amended but if it serves the purpose of the country and people it should never be suspended.
Finally, the countries and the international agencies which have reacted to the recent incident about the report published in the local daily where were they when Bangladesh’s first military ruler General Zia passed the Indemnity Law in the Parliament indemnifying the killers of Bangabandhu in 1975? And of course there is the incident of when the state became a mass killer also during the reign of Zia when it executed hundreds of innocent air force men without any trial on the pretext that they involved in an aborted coup to overthrow him in 1977? Even the bodies of those executed were never handed over to their family members.
Opinions from any person or bodies, local or international should never be selective but should be made with good intention and for strengthening democracy in any country.