The Other Papers
Journalists outside Dhaka are fighting a long-running battle against money and muscle
Prodip Bhattacharya Shankar, chief reporter of Dainik Korotoa, will never forget the night of 28 June, 1991.
A band of goons led by local Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) leader attacked Dainik Korotoa office in Chadnibazaar and tried to burn the place down. Shankar was beaten black and blue and had to be hospitalised. There 'reasons' for the BNP leader to vent his anger: a week or two ago the newspaper ran a story, which unearthed the real reason behind a string of bomb blasts in the Bogra office of the BNP--internal feud for power in the party. “Bogra is considered a bastion of the BNP as its founder Ziaur Rahman was born in the district. The BNP leaders could not stand our reporting of the incident,” Shankar says.
Brutality is an enduring presence in rural journalism. In the last ten years, on an average, two journalists have been murdered in the country every year.
Tipu Sultan was staff writer of the Shaptahik Hawkers and a stringer for the United News of Bangladesh when he was picked up from downtown Feni by the then Awami League MP Joynal Hazari and his bullyboys. He was taken to a nearby field, mercilessly beaten up and left in a rickshaw after his attackers thought he was dead. It was the kindness of the rickshaw-puller that kept him alive.
He was taken to a nearby house where some women lived; they admitted him to a hospital. “The MP and his cronies then tried to kill me again. The local people told me later that Hazari and his boys were planning to attack the hospital where I was,” Tipu says. Tipu's friends hired an ambulance and at the dead of night he moved to Dhaka.
Strange as it sounds, but Tipu's plights started the day Sultana Islam, a local teacher, died and her sons set up a school to honour their dead mother's memory. Jainal Hazari was invited at the inauguration of the school as a speaker, not as a chief guest. It enraged the MP that he was not made the chief guest and he sent around 400 men to demolish the school building. They diligently followed his order and on their way back home they desecrated Sultana's grave. None but Tipu Sultan wrote about the assault. Jainal Hazari has always claimed innocence and he has never been arrested for trying to kill Tipu.
The situation may not be as life threatening as it used to be a few years ago although journalists in small towns don't have it easy. Media Analyst Muhammad Jahangir thinks journalists in small towns work under immense pressure. “It's absolutely different for them,” he says, “in a mufassil town everyone knows each other, and its no big deal to find out who has done what story even if the by-line has not been printed,” he says.
The type of pressure varies, says Sabur Shuva, senior staff reporter of Azadi. “I did a story on a sensational murder in which some hoodlums of Islami Chatra Shibir were the accused,” Sabur says, “Within a few days I started to get calls where unknown persons told me to write wisely.”
Asif Shiraj of Chittagong Press Club thinks such incidents are rampant. He says that it's even worse for photographers who have to carry the camera all the time and so can be easily identified while on an assignment.
At the Chittagong Press Club, another journalist, who wants to remain anonymous, speaks of another problem-- manipulation of news. “Sometimes newspersons have to write stories in which the owners' other business establishments are either glorified or journalists do not write reports that might harm these businesses,” he says. He cites an instance in which a fabricated report was run by a newspaper about a doctor because he refused to prescribe certain medicines that were manufactured by a company that was run by the newspaper owners.
Muhammad Jahangir calls this problem endemic. He says, “If it's a politically biased newspaper, the journalists have no independence whatsoever, a reporter is directly controlled by the owner.
“If it comes to law, the newspaper owners are free in this country to choose the policy that they want to pursue, but a journalist is, in a way, forced to sing the eulogy of that policy.”
Shankar, news editor of Bogra-based Dainik Korotoa, says during the last Army-controlled government his newspaper published reports praising the government out of fear.
“We were afraid that the government was going to put our owner in the list of alleged corruption suspects,” Shankar says. He says that owners always tell newspersons not to write anything that might make the government angry.
“We are in a semi-liberal situation where the owners are free, and none of the newspapers is calling North Pole, South. News that The Daily Star will put in the 7th page, can make a three-column headline in Amar Desh. Does the Editor of Amar Desh have no news sense? Its not about news sense, it is more about following the guideline that the owner has set before the paper,” Jahangir says.
Dainik Azadi has been in business for the last 50 years. Hasan Akbar, chief reporter of the Azadi, says getting advertisement can be difficult sometimes. “There are instances when big companies have stopped giving us advertisements after a certain news has gone against them,” he says. Akbar says his paper never compromises with its policy, so sometimes its advertisement section fails to generate enough revenue.
The treatment of news in district newspapers is changing. While national news used to get the prominence two years ago, these papers are now putting more emphasis on local news. Dainik Korotoa once tried to be a national newspaper and set up a bureau in Dhaka. Their aim was to go big and catch the national market. It failed miserably. Its circulation plummeted and within months, if not days, the editors had set their priorities right and started to cater again to its readers who lived in northern Bangladesh.
Azadi always runs local lead and Jahangir appreciates it. “This is the only district newspaper that I know of which runs local lead news without a second thought,” he says. He believes that without giving local news the importance it deserves no district newspaper can survive. Hasan Akbar agrees and he justifies Azadi's news treatment by saying, “Ours is a Chittagong newspaper, we have always been one and we would like to remain so.”
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