Are Bangladesh’s media adding fuel to the country’s toxic political culture?

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by Manzur Elahi

Bangladesh’s politics are highly polarized, and the reporting of its media reflects this. Party loyalties are fierce, and biased reporting fiercer still. This has been most exemplary on the one issue that is dividing Bangladesh the most right now, the International Crimes Tribunal.

Following the death sentence against Bangladesh’s notable Islamic preacher and Jamaat-e-Islami leader Mowlana Delwar Hossain Sayeedi, over 100 people have died and countless others have been injured throughout the country. In the immediate aftermath of the sentence more than 50 were shot dead by security forces and since then every day several people have been killed or injured by police or border guards.

Many gruesome images and videos have emerged showing security forces  to have killed and tortured protesters.  There are allegations and evidence that in a number of cases the security forces even pointed their guns at the heads of arrested protesters and killed them in cold blood. Bangladeshi prisons are now full of Jamaat supporters, but the reporting of this in the Bangladeshi media has been minimal.

A questionable approach

Despite so many deaths, injuries and arrests, there is no criticism against the government from civil society and the media in Bangladesh.  On the contrary, they continue to call on the government to resist Jamaat ‘hooligans’ with an iron fist and even ban the party.  The question that follows is, are the media playing a responsible role in this brutal crackdown?  I would argue that the media are partly responsible for creating this situation.

For the last few years Jamaat-e-Islami has not been allowed to hold meetings or organise peaceful processions.  Security forces have regularly raided their offices, rounded up their members and in some instances paraded them in front of cameras as criminals.  They have regularly seized their published literature terming it ‘Jihadi’ and attacked their demonstrations terming them ‘anti-state activities’.

The media have not only presented the government’s version of events uncritically, but they have also vigorously supported government actions against the party. In many cases when Jamaat protesters have clashed with the police, the media have vehemently criticised the police for confronting them ‘too softly’.  For any violence involving Jamaat, newspaper reports and television talk shows squarely blame Jamaat-Shibir and censure security forces for not dealing with Jamaat ‘miscreants’ with an iron fist.  In clashes between Jamaat and ruling Awami League cadres, Jamaat members have been reported as miscreants and ruling party cadres as the ‘ordinary public’.

‘Covering’ the International Crimes Tribunal

In reporting the proceedings of the International Crimes Tribunal, the media have published the claims of the investigators and prosecutors in systematic detail, but neglected to publish details of the defence.   Misleadingly, the media have concealed a number of important pieces of information.  Had this information been published, the public may have had a quite different view of the trial.

For example, after a number of important prosecution witnesses had declined to give witness testimony against Sayeedi, they were kept in a Dhaka safe house while their written statements were admitted in the court as evidence.  When the register of the safe house was procured and presented to the Tribunal, the Tribunal refused to take the irrefutable facts of the document into account.

Similarly, the abduction of a key defence witness Shukranjan Bali from outside the tribunal gates was not reported in the media with due importance.   In fact the media have hardly ever questioned the fairness of the trial, structurally or procedurally. For example, when the tribunal restricted the number of defence witnesses while permitting the prosecution to bring in any number of witnesses.  Despite repeated pleas from the defence to allow them to bring in a limited number of witnesses, the tribunal rushed to close the case.  Moreover, the media themselves have subverted the course of justice by regularly presenting ‘investigative reports’ showing Jamaat leaders were culpable for genocide. The concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is absent amongst Bangladesh’s media, despite being a key value of cosmopolitan traditions that inform its legal system.

Ethics and the media

This is unsurprising considering the poor ethical standards of the media at present.  Most media houses and journalists are ignorant of journalistic ethical standards.  Many of them act so crudely that at times it appears that they are mere party activists masquerading as journalists.

What is surprising is the role of the country’s most respected and widely circulated daily Prothom Alo’s coverage in this regard. The daily is the only media outlet which has explicit ethical guidelines for its reporters and editors.  One has to admit that generally, the daily is compliant to those standards and as a consequence, and in a very short time, it has gained widespread respect and trust.  But this compliance of ethics goes down the drain when it comes to any news regarding Jamaat and Shibir.

For example, the newspaper’s ethical guidelines 3rd clause reads:

Because of our personal interest, fear or position, we do not provide wrong information. We also do not fully or partially conceal or distort information that are in the public interest “.

Obviously, Mowlana Sayeedi’s trial and the controversies surrounding the trial are a public interest issue.  Similarly, as a legitimate political party Jamaat has the right to hold meetings or bring out processions.  However, the newspaper has systematically concealed  any information that may have appeared favourable to the accused of the trial.  It never wrote a line when female members of Jamaat were arrested and harassed at a private meeting, and omitted to mention that when another group of veiled women joined a public discussion meeting demanding their release, they were also arrested.

While it publishes front page reports and heart sobbing stories alleging Jamaat-Shibir’s involvement in the burning of Hindu homes and temples, their denial rarely get covered, or if covered only a receive a few lines on inside page.  It did not publish reports of Shibir members guarding a Hindu temple to protect it from vandals, rather the daily celebrated when the security forces started using live bullets to killing Jamaat and Shibir members.   It would seem the daily’s strategy is to publish anything negative about Jamaat while concealing or distorting anything positive.

Due to this daily’s authority and acceptability, its anti-Jamaat campaign easily becomes an agenda for other media. In the last week too, the international media has taken up these stories without properly scrutinising their provenance.   This was also the case earlier in the crisis when the International Press Institute and then media commentator Roy Greenslade spoke out against attacks allegedly carried out by Jamaat-Shibir members during police firings on nationwide demonstrations after Friday prayers on 22nd February. They relied on media traditionally hostile to the party and failed to mention attacks committed against media organizations who were not necessarily sympathetic to the government.

Impacts on the dehumanised, the Industry, profession and wider society

When the media continuously dehumanise a group of people and blame them for all their ills, a section of wider society will become convinced or at least feel legitimated in behaving with them in the harshest way.  From this view, it is plausible to imagine why in the last few days the security forces felt able and legitimate in taking over a hundred lives, injuring thousands and arresting scores of others.  Since its independence, the country has not seen such atrocities committed by its own security forces in broad daylight.

When the media does not report impartially, fairly and give voice to all sides of a story irrespective of their ideological positions, they can cause serious injustices like what has been happening in the last few days.   In the long run, the media and the journalists also become their own casualties and over time they lose readers.  In the 90’s, daily Janakantha was the most popular and respectable newspaper, printing simultaneously from four cities in Bangladesh and reaching almost all corners of society.  Like today’s Prothom Alo it was blind about all journalistic guidelines when it came to Jamaat and Shibir.  Today, the newspaper barely breaths.

Furthermore, all journalist’s credibility is eroded.  Already they are perceived as one of the nation’s most untrustworthy groups of people.    In 2005, a country-wide survey by the BBC Trust found that people’s trust towards journalists was even lower (34%) than it was towards politicians (39%), with religious leaders enjoying the highest public trust (70%).

To conclude, the media in Bangladesh should start some serious soul searching.  They need to ask themselves if they are fair and impartial in all of their news reporting or not.  If they want peace and prosperity for their country, it would be best achieved if and when they were to adhere to values of impartiality and fairness, even with their fiercest ideological enemies.  In the long term, this would also ensure their credibility which is crucial for their own survival.

Source: Khichuri