Learning the Wrong Lessons
Those who want to put the government and the media at loggerheads are not friends of democracy
Since the birth of democracy and the idea of individual freedom, the state, as we know it, has had three vital components, the harmony o f which is pivotal for a functioning democracy to work. The legislature, the judiciary and the executive are supposed to work independently, and that too hand in hand.
A new one, however, soon joined the list. It was in 1787, Edmund Burke, philosopher and politician, first called media the Fourth Estate and since then the two phrases have become interchangeable. In a modern democratic state, the freedom of press is as important and crucial for democracy to survive as the sanctity of the judiciary and the sovereignty of the legislature.
Throughout history free press has given the wildest of despots their worst nightmares. To control the media has been an abiding passion for the autocrats who clogged the world's politics in the sixties and seventies. Bangladesh had had its fair share in the saga, sordid and bloody that it is. Ziaur Rahman made state-run radio and television his eulogy box. Ershad went a step further, he had even shown his music videos on TV, which ran a song apparently written by him, and the images of the President wading through waves of floodwater to distribute clothes and food to the poor were telecast every night at primetime.
By the standards of the military rulers of their time, both Zia and Ershad banned newspapers and magazines quite frequently. Incidents of army officers picking journalists up to threaten them with dire consequences if a particular news gets published were the order of the day. Ershad had abused his power as the Chief of the army, and there are instances in his eight-year-rule when the men in olive were sent to newspaper offices to confiscate copies of the papers or to arrest errant editors.
Faced with intimidation and brutality, journalists upheld the flag of truth fast, and the demon of military rule was finally buried in the golden soil of Bengal in 1990. The country's airwaves have now been opened to different local satellite channels; newspapers have started to report freely; editorials have remained at times scathing; cartoons and satires have lampooned politicians, who, however grudgingly, have learnt to acknowledge the power of the Fourth Estate.
There have been occasional hiccups from some politicians though. Zoinal Hazari, then an Awami League (AL) strongman from Feni, found the reports by Tipu Sultan on the former's alleged misdeeds difficult to digest. His goons beat the local journalist up and left him in a field thinking that Tipu was dead. Tipu was saved by a kind rickshaw-puller who took him to safety. Journalists at the national level soon rallied behind Tipu, who was sent to Thailand for treatment. Incidents like this have repeated themselves in the rules of both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina.
There are numerous occasions when ministers cried foul when a report went against them. The most illustrious example came from Matiur Rahman Nizami, Jamaat-e-Islami Chief and Industry Minister in Khaleda Zia's last cabinet. In the middle of Khaleda's rule Siddikul Islam alias Bangla Bhai and his fellow band of thugs unleashed a reign of terror in Bogra, Rajshahi and the surrounding districts. When photos of two men, hung upside down from a tree, beaten to death by Bangla and his men hit the headlines, Nizami called him a figment of media's imagination.
Last month, some goons belonging to the ruling party vandalised an exam centre and manhandled government officials in Pabna after the district's deputy commissioner (DC) refused to entertain the local AL MPs request to hire some Grade III employees. Bullying by some AL leaders that ensued embarrassed even some party leaders who rightly denounced the incident and called for a halt to the activities that they deemed suicidal for the party. A photo of the view-exchange meeting organised by the DC was published which showed a female executive magistrates apparently crying.
It is indeed disappointing to see HT Imam, a former bureaucrat, blaming the media for blowing things out of proportion saying the district administration officials told him that no one cried at the view exchange meeting. Truth in fact runs the other way round; it is insignificant whether the DC and other officials in Pabna cried or not; the facts remain facts: the government, which runs itself through the district administration, was humiliated by the followers of the party that rules the country. For about a week, because of the bullying of some AL supporters, the district administration could not function properly. Imam was defending the indefensible, and he had no reason to do so.
Awami League is not a party of saints, and it is not expected that it becomes one. Bangladesh's politics is strewn with criminals and gangsters and there is no denying that the party will have some in its fold. What is really important for the party to do is take action against those who break the law and give the party, which was the vanguard of the country's independence, a bad name. The AL is the largest political party in the country; nothing will happen to its support base if it kicks a few corrupt out of its rank.
The government and its policymakers must remember that blaming the media for everything that has gone wrong never helps. Media publishes what it sees, if it runs false reports, it will lose leadership sooner rather than later. History suggests that no newspaper can manage to remain popular if it deliberately runs stories that are devoid of truth. The world of politics is equally brutal. Those who do not deliver, ultimately perish.
(R) thedailystar.net 2010