<%-- Page Title--%> Perspective <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 148 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 2, 2004

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Our new National Slogan

We're not the worst!

Zafar Sobhan

A four-member team from the Committee to Protect Journalists, in town the other week on a fact-finding mission, recently declared Bangladesh to be the most violent country for newsmen in Asia. The delegation pointed out that since 1997 at least seven journalists in Bangladesh have been killed in reprisal for their work and that countless more have been either attacked or threatened.

The response to the CPJ statement was predictable. The information ministry dismissed the statement as "totally motivated" and "biased" and the president of the pro-government faction of the DUJ added for good measure: "we can smell politics in it."

This is not the first time that the government and it supporters have grabbed hold of the wrong end of the stick when it comes to responding to the findings of an impartial, independent, international organisation with no discernible axe to grind against the ruling coalition. Last October the finance ministry high-handedly dismissed the Transparency International report that found Bangladesh to be the most corrupt country in the world.

In that instance, the government blithely chose to ignore the substance of the statement. The point, surely, is not whether Bangladesh is the most corrupt nation in the world, or the second most corrupt, or the third most corrupt. The point is that Bangladesh is, by any standard and by any measure, a nation that is mired in corruption. The law minister recently acknowledged that GDP growth was fully 40% lower than it would be in the absence of corruption.

But Transparency International had the temerity to find Bangladesh the most corrupt nation in the world. Instead of being abashed at the endemic corruption that TI had documented in Bangladesh and using its findings of fact as the basis for action, the government chose to go into high dudgeon at what it perceived to be the slurring of Bangladesh's good name.

Once again, with the CPJ statement, the government has utterly and comically missed the point. The point is not whether or not we are the most violent country in Asia for newsmen. I concede that we are perhaps not the worst. I dare say that press freedom in other Asian countries is even worse than it is here and that violence may well also be worse elsewhere. But the point is not whether we are the worst or not, but whether or not violence against newsmen in Bangladesh is at an unacceptable level or not.

This refusal to accept criticism is the real problem. The government routinely dismisses all criticism of its performance as politically motivated. Criticism on the part of the opposition is considered beneath contempt, and the government refuses to believe that any criticism leveled against it by the media can be anything other than an organised effort to smear and malign.

But that the government and its supporters would accuse CPJ of political bias is truly laughable. I wish someone would explain to me the nature of CPJ's nefarious agenda and the provenance of its hostility towards the four-party alliance government. The president of the pro-government faction of the DUJ even went so far as to cleverly ask: "How did the CPJ conclude that Bangladesh is the worst in Asia . . . has it collected data of other countries?" Umm, actually, that's all that CPJ does do.

The official defense then seems to be that we are not the worst. I'm afraid that the government needs to raise the bar a little. The fact that we might not be the worst is not good enough. It is an insult to suggest that we should be content with the fact that other Asian countries may be more violent for newsmen. The government seems to think that it has won the battle, both rhetorically and substantively. It has done neither, The battle will be won when Bangladesh is no longer a violent country for newsmen -- not when Myanmar or Afghanistan beat us out for last place!

The government should have taken the CPJ report as a salutary critique of its performance, and used it as an opportunity for introspection and to institute much-needed reforms. The government's dismissive response sadly suggests that its commitment to press freedom remains suspect and that it remains indifferent to the violence against newsmen that runs rampant. Then again, why are we surprised?

Zafar Sobhan is an Assistant Editor of The Daily Star.


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