The Age of Disinformation

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Whoever may happen to fund them, questions posing retroactive hypotheses are unlikely to generate the most accurate answers in any poll. Much is being made by the government of a poll conducted by Democracy International/AC Nielsen in the last week of January, where in answer to one question, more people said they would have voted for the Awami League than the BNP, even if the latter had participated in the election held on January 5. You can make of that what you will. The questionnaire sounds ill-devised. And the fact remains, that despite some significant achievements on the administrative and economic development fronts, Sheikh Hasina’s government had to rely on an extremely underhanded design that more or less subverted the democratic process in Bangladesh to secure a second term.

The shenanigans mainly centred the January 5 elections that represented the biggest black mark in the history of elections held in the country, with a majority of seats elected without voters even getting a chance to exercise their franchise rights. As such, we are left with the quintessential government without a mandate. Whether it manages to govern for five years though, is another matter.

There were some good reasons for which the electorate comprising 92 million Bangladeshis (out of which less than half saw voting held in their constituencies, and much much less turned up to avail that opportunity) was ready to throw them out. The economy was slowing down, with the current fiscal set to be the third straight year of decelerating economic growth. That corruption is a disease affecting the entire political class in Bangladesh became apparent when it became public how the ruling coalition’s elected representatives had amassed vast amounts of wealth over the course of their five year term in the 9th Jatiya Sangshad. Some flagship policy objectives of the government, namely the Padma Bridge on the development front and a recalibration of bilateral relations with India banking on sharing in some of the fruits of their economic success, failed to materialise.

Yet arguably the most distasteful bit about the last five years in Bangladesh under the regime of Sheikh Hasina has been the very crude and entirely uncalled for form of identity politics that has gained currency and divided the nation. Crude, because it seeks to draw a line where none existed before between Bangladeshis’ Bengali and Muslim identities – disturbing the equilibrium that saw them straddle both with admirable gumption for hundreds of years. Uncalled for, because hitherto there was nothing to suggest things were coming to a head in any way to force them to choose one or the other. As a nation there is nothing to be gained from some final reckoning on the matter.

What implicates the government in all this is that this false dichotomy is directly fed by the sort of political rhetoric the Awami League has made its own. It is driven by binary positions (epaar-opaar) and casual labelling (pro- or anti-liberation, tui rajakar) and thrives on personality cults. If you’re thinking of just Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, witness the one growing around Sheikh Hasina. It also lends itself to distorted interpretations of history, while the real issues of the day fail to garner proper attention amid a political fuzz that is sustained by fear-mongering and blanket vilification of opposing forces.

All of these elements were present, to varying degree, during Sheikh Hasina’s first term as prime minister from 1996-2001. But in the last five years, we have witnessed their intensity being progressively ratcheted up. Part of the reason why the current lull in the political arena feels like such a welcome breather is precisely because there were some points in 2013 when the prospect of civil war, extreme as it is, didn’t seem too far-fetched.

The feeling of some great wound festering just beneath the calm surface however, fails to go away. It’s true that the Awami League’s great rivals in Bangladesh’s political arena, the BNP, currently looks too shell-shocked by the sheer audacity of the League, to mount much of a challenge towards realising some sense of fairness in the game. It’s difficult confronting a government ready to go to any lengths, both high and low, to get what it wants, with no regard whatsoever for the established rules of engagement. Let alone one that has no qualms about using the state’s entire security apparatus (plus some, in the form of the Chhatra League) in oppressing you in a manner that would put many an authoritarian to shame. It’s no surprise then, that in her last press conference, BNP chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia acknowledged the need for her party to get its house in order before announcing the next stage in their ‘movement’ to topple the government.

Points of Contention

In any case, it is hardly any secret that the real thrust in the opposition’s movement, the disruptive force that was causing the government its biggest headache was being provided not by the BNP itself, but rather their strongest ally – the Jamaat e Islami, long-established as Bangladesh’s main Islamist party. In many ways, the pendulum of Bangladesh politics today swings around the fortunes of Jamaat. With almost their entire top leadership in the dock facing trials related to war crimes committed during the War of Liberation in 1971, the party has good reason to feel victimised, faced with an existential threat that may end up undoing a lot of the legitimately good work it has done in the country even within the democratic paradigm.

Bringing the war criminals of ‘71 to justice was another one of the flagship pledges that went into forming the Awami League’s election manifesto in 2008. Given that the epiphany had occurred a bit late, following a history of cooperation with Jamaat and only once the Islamists seemed set for consolidating a potentially impregnable electoral partnership with the BNP (that had already borne fruit for both in elections held in 2001) the suspicion that its motivation owed more to politics than justice was pretty much immediate. And in the almost shambolic manner that it has been carried out since then, that suspicion has only grown. Were it not for a hostile media environment towards the accused, that spared the conduct of the trials the requisite scrutiny to expose the flaws in the proceedings, Bangladeshis may well have seen through the veil of justice that has been draped over what is essentially a political project.

There’s a considerable amount of work that goes into putting up that veil, and in sustaining it – all devoted to winning the battle for hearts and minds. Ultimately the trials derive almost all of the legitimacy they enjoy from their popularity. They will hardly set the annals alight for their adherence to international standards of due process. But as you would expect, from the opposite corner there is equally a force that is intent upon dismantling the veil to expose the truth, or their version of it anyway. The perception of a hostile mainstream media lends itself to overreach on their part, as they feel they must go the extra yard to capture the narrative. And so what you get from outlets such as Basherkella, which shares strong links with Jamaat, is also often disingenuous. Although not always. While all this plays out, the greatest disservice of all is done to fact. Suffering not just distortion but also misrepresentation and suppression. It all bodes ill for the primacy of reason in society, as the raw material for such a pursuit – objective, reliable information based on facts – goes missing. The polarisation of society imparts a negative effect here as well, since it becomes difficult to find neutral sources that you can trust. So it’s no surprise to see that almost every piece of information or data revealed in Bangladesh today quickly becomes contentious – only some more than others. The issue goes beyond cultivating a healthy skepticism towards data. There’s a rabid distrust. And good reason for it too.

Till this day, the argument remains unsettled as to how many alems and ulemas actually got killed at the hands of the joint force comprising RAB, police and BGB, at Shapla Chottor last May 6, where supporters of Hefazat e Islam had gathered from all over the country in a show of Islamist strength. A reactionary movement, against a contrived, overtly secular wave sweeping through the nation with Shahbagh its beating heart. If only they had managed to keep its head there as well. The figures at the high end for those killed at Shapla Chottor, between 2500-3000, must be exaggerated. At the same time, the police force’s contention that no-one died during the final offensive to clear the area, sounds like hogwash. Odhikar, a human rights group, carried out a fact-finding mission to arrive at a credible estimate. The figure they quoted for the number of deaths they were able to confirm, was 61. It corroborates closely with figures by Al Jazeera and Human Rights Watch that they were able to verify independently. It is still reprehensible, which is what people don’t seem to get, because it is vastly lower than the outlying figures in the 2500-3000 range. And yet for authoring it, the organisation’s secretary, Adilur Rahman Khan, as well as its executive director Nasir Elan, both were sent to jail. Their cases are still running, although they have recently managed to secure bail finally. However, it is the general public in the end, who are left unsure on what to believe.

A similar incident grew out of the press conference Khaleda Zia held on February 4, during which she provided a figure for the number of BNP workers/activists killed at the hands of the joint security force deployed by the government for much of January, ostensibly to quell violence centring the elections. According to Begum Zia, some 302 of her party’s activists/leaders/workers had been killed extrajudicially by the state in just one month. A few days later, the Daily Star led on its front page with a refutation of the figures provided by the BNP chairperson, based on figures they had compiled from various sources for 9 districts. Now some BNP-affiliated electronic media outlets have come out with their own estimates, that corroborate more closely with Begum Zia’s figures. Again, who to trust ultimately becomes a question for each individual to answer as he sees fit. But you know that either the leader of one of your two biggest parties or one of your most highly respected newspapers being so spectacularly wrong or lying spells trouble for the cause of establishing an informed, and aware citizenry.

The world is flat

The fact is that during the Awami League’s present run in government that started in 2009, far too many of the trusted chronicles of the day have been discredited, and in disturbing circumstances. In such a situation it may seem understandable that two newspapers – Amar Desh and Inqilab – have suffered shutdowns, along with two television channels affiliated with the opposition – Naya Diganta and Islamic TV. Yet you cannot help but question the government bearing down on them for carrying news damaging to their standing. Was it a case of them fabricating news, or is it the government seeking to suppress the facts? When Prothom Alo gets exposed for the sort of ‘gaffe’ they have been – doctoring images, disingenuous captions to photographs that could be said to incite communal disharmony – on more than one occasion, it disturbs your sense of the society you’re a part of, the profession you’re in. Some element of bias may be inevitable when a position is staked out, but the application of it mustn’t be so crude. You must always meet the expectation of having reasoned. Otherwise the real motives behind your position become questionable.

The fact of so many news sources getting shown up for vile subversions of journalistic ethics perhaps owes a debt to this period coinciding with the maturing of the IT boom in Bangladesh, that has been carried on the back of the explosive growth in telecommunications. Bangladeshis are now increasingly using their mobile devices to access information in a variety of areas, and from a variety of sources. They have also taken to social media networks like Facebook and Twitter in their droves. This ease of access lies at the heart of Thomas Friedman’s thesis in his now famous book The World is Flat, which contends a convergence of the personal computer with fiber-optic micro cable along with the rise of work flow software has created a level-playing field for businesses across the world, where all competitors have equal opportunity. It is similarly the case that information asymmetries are being nullified by the growth in technology and access to it.

Yet sifting through all the piles of information becoming available to you to choose the ones that are credible and separate them from the ones that are not can be an odious task. Research from the West shows eventually we fall into patterns of choosing those bits that most conform to our world-view, rather than challenge our thinking. That certainly seems set to be replicated here as well. Then there are those that seek to cater to every taste, and end up a bit all over the place. Generally, if one cares enough about what one knows, it is a good idea to maintain some idea of the people behind any publication, whether online or from the physical copy. Given that most fail to even clarify what they stand for, or remain guilty of inconsistencies in standing by them, this may itself be difficult. Yet if you manage to do so, it may help you garner some idea at least, of the set of beliefs or the line of thinking, that informs their disinformation.

 

Article Source: Dhaka Courier

 

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