In the eye of the storm
If not take partial blame for the threat that media is under at the moment in the country, journalists should at least recognise that they should, in any case, up the ante in their professional standards, to challenge the grievous and gruesome threats that are coming their way. Journalists must, and can only, respond with the thing they know best — journalism, writes Mubin S Khan
I HAD grown into the habit of writing commentaries on current affairs issues twice a month, since June last year, when the murders of the journalist couple Sagar Sarowar and Meherun Runi happened. It was, by far, one of the most sensational murder cases of the last few years, and anyone with any ability to jot down a few lines on a piece of paper, or join a few thoughts and ideas into words, turned into an expert on criminology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, trying to explain away the roots of the crime in question. People spoke about decadent lifestyles, of paramours, of dangers on the job, of multinational and political conspiracies, of inside jobs.
I decided to bide my time. After all, we all knew, that the Bangladeshi police always know ‘who dunnit’ — thanks to their long-standing tradition of carving a piece out of every pie — and given the right ‘incentive’, can find the culprits in no time. Incentive in this case was very high — Sagar and Runi were mid-career journalists with esteemed national television channels. Their murders were both an offence to the journalist community and a sensitive spot for most middle-income urban dwellers. There was too much at stake for the government to ignore such an incident. Or so I thought then. I would write a piece, I thought to myself, after the killers were arrested — which was sure to happen sooner rather than later — about the ease with which people jumped the gun on the motive, without a clue about what really happened. And so, I confidently sat on the fence while everyone joined the speculation bandwagon.
I waited, and then I waited, and then I waited a little more. Forty-eight hours — the home minister’s self-imposed deadline — came and went. But we were told the police were very close. So close, that some journalists could smell the crime of their fellow colleagues. And yet, like one of those optical illusions where things are ‘so close, yet so far’, the potential and probable killers disbelievingly slipped out of our grasp, and soon enough we were ‘Waiting for Godot’. Not in my wildest imagination had I thought that the Bangladeshi police and their political masters would let such an important case slip out of their grasp and then gleefully appear in court three months later to profess their utter failure.
A dangerous precedent had been set. You could harm journalists, the apparent torchbearers of freedom of expression and the proverbial fourth estate, without having to face any repercussions — that was the message the government gave out, which was gladly received by the likes of Shahidul Alam, the now-suspended assistant commissioner of police (who, in fact, said as much before he assaulted three Prothom Alo photojournalists), the sub-inspectors at the Police Club or the hoodlums who stormed the bdnews24.com office. It was quite inevitable. In the space of seven days, the police at first assaulted three photojournalists of the highest-circulating national Bengali daily in the country after an inane altercation. Then another set of policemen swooped on journalists and lawyers, as they were hearing out a young girl who had just been sexually assaulted by the police. And finally, not to be left out, local hoodlums in Tejgaon thought themselves immune to the law as they stormed the esteemed online news office and chopped at the feet of journalists.
It almost feels like a declaration of war, especially, when the state minister for home adds, ‘keep away from policemen.’ Time for some to pull down those ‘fake’ and ‘real’ stickers on the windshields of the car that read — ‘Sangbadik’ (journalist).
The might of the sword
YOU have the executive, the legislature and the judiciary — the three organs of the state. At least in theory, these organs are meant to work as a ‘check and balance’ for each other, on the colossal power that the privilege of state power brings upon its practitioners. And then you have the media and journalists, often termed the fourth estate, representatives of the people at large who work as an independent extra eye on the affairs of the state, from the outside.
In recent years, for both right and wrong reasons, the influence of the media has grown impressively. The trinity of power remains in theory, but in practice, it has often narrowed down to the nod of the single head at the top. What this has meant is that, together with fading credibility of politicians, law enforcers and a brigade of yes-men, the men on the outside — the journalists — have increasingly become just about the only people who command a certain level of believability, despite their own drawbacks.
Yes, journalists can sometimes, especially when up against befuddled governments, set the agenda of the day. Yes, to a certain extent, they can, depending on the outlet, have an influence over the prevailing mood and environment. Yes, they can keep issues alive, in the centre of the public eye, or let it slip out of sight.
It is in fact not unknown for people, nowadays, to walk in with their complaint to the newspaper office first, ahead of the police station.
The might of the pen, against all kinds of repressions of the sword, even in a country where illiteracy is so high, has been inspiring, to say the least. And, therefore, it is only inevitable that the sword will turn on the pen every now and then. This ‘every now and then’, however, is quickly becoming the norm now.
While the media is predictably and invariably the first target of any government who comes to power undemocratically, with anything being thrown their way including censorship, disappearance, harassment, assault and intimidation, democratically-elected governments have also displayed a natural talent of adopting the same methods whenever faced with any discomfort.
Since 1998, the death of 16 journalists across the country has remained unsolved. Especially vulnerable have been always the journalists working out of the capital Dhaka, where institutional and organisational support for journalistic work is painfully lacking.
The Bangladesh Nationalist Party, during its previous tenure in government, took pleasure in dismantling and shutting down the first private extraterrestrial channel in the country, Ekushey Television. The present Awami League government responded in kind, shutting down Channel 1. The BNP-led government arrested, and allegedly tortured, journalists and intellectuals deemed loyal to the Awami League. The Awami League once again responded in kind. Additionally, the incumbents have also been worried about the growing power of ‘talk shows’ and have used various coercive and ‘on the sly’ mechanisms to blunt their edges.
But from journalists working in dangerous terrains outside the capital or on the fringes of the industry, to partisan and political repression of journalists, ‘power’ in recent times appears to be gunning for the ‘eye’ of the fourth estate. Journalists are no longer safe in their bedroom, in their workplace or on assignment. This is indeed a dangerous place to be in.
The might of the pen
IT IS rather a scary proposition to stand in front of men with sticks, guns and the power of command in their voice and hands, with just a pen in yours. Sure you can write, sure you can have local and international professional groups condemning the government, sure you can put together a gathering and go on a hunger strike, but what if they call your bluff? What if they raise the stakes?
That unfortunately is what seems to have happened now. Power has become very greedy and delirious and is ready to trample anybody in its path. A pen, unfortunately, is one of the easiest things to trample with a boot.
So how do we respond? Yes, we respond by organising, by agitating, by protesting — within our democratic rights — for as long as is required, before we can induce a change in the scenario. But more importantly, in moments such as now, which would not be a stretch to describe as one of our dark moments, it is important to return to the basics, to the roots, to re-establish our relationship with the fountain springs of our power.
What is the fountain spring of the power of journalists? It is where all real power derives from — people. And how do we get this power? It is through collecting, analysing, contextualising and disseminating information for the benefit of the people. It is by upholding the truth and by reflecting people’s rights and aspirations through our journalistic work that such power is conferred upon journalists. ‘Sangbadiks’ are ‘sanghatik’ not because of any diktat or muscle that protects them, but because the people protect their right to information, right to truth and its message-bearers.
If in our darkest moments we feel vulnerable, we feel our adversaries have become powerful and ruthless, then it is also time we asked ourselves the difficult question of what we have been doing ourselves. After all, it was also part of our job to check the growth of such unbridled power which can even usurp us. How did it get it to become so powerful?
Let’s go back to the Sagar-Runi affair. The police, its detective branch, both failed to solve the murder, and in all likelihood, so will the Rapid Action Battalion. But what were the journalists doing all this while? Sure, they dedicated prime time hours on television and front-page headlines on paper to tearfully remember Sagar-Runi, but how many news organisations have so far carried out a credible investigation on their part to shed some light on the crime, or at least why the police are failing? There is something called investigative journalism, you know. In fact, for that matter, most of the high-profile incidents in recent months have gotten enough media attention, but in how many of them have the media actually contributed to people’s knowledge? Have the media carried out an investigation of their own on the alleged corruption in the Padma Bridge project? Did the media tell us about the corruption in railways recruitment before the Suranjit Sengupta incident happened?
Inefficiency and complacency are not just the only woes that afflict journalism in this country. In a roundabout way the state minister may be right when he asks journalists to keep out of the way of policemen. Too many journalists today hobnob with power too closely, beyond the ambit of professional necessity. Too many of them prioritise their political allegiance over professional standards in their treatment of news. Something known to many but rarely admitted, some journalists, or at least ones with an id card, like their errant policemen and politician cousins, often grind their teeth into the piece of pie, taking part in what essentially constitutes various criminal activities.
If not take partial blame for the threat that media is under at the moment in the country, journalists should at least recognise that they should, in any case, up the ante in their professional standards, to challenge the grievous and gruesome threats that are coming their way. Journalists must, and can only, respond with the thing they know best — journalism. It is journalism that earned them their privileges and power, and it is journalism that will bail them out when they are in such danger.
Mubin S Khan is an assistant editor at New Age.
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