Friday, January 31, 2014

Media coverage of parliament's first day

The front pages of Bangladesh's English language newspapers published on Thursday morning, the day after the first day of parliament, provide an interesting indication of how the media is likely to respond to the country's new government and in particular its parliament.

The editors of New Age, Daily Star and Dhaka Tribune have all been highly critical of the 'elections' calling them a 'farce' or using similar such descriptive language. (I have not followed the editorial lines of the Independent or the Sun, the other two relevant English language papers.)

Yet, apart from New Age*, you would barely know that there was any questions about the legitimacy of the new parliament.

New Age had two stories across the top of the front page about parliament. Its leading article was titled, 'Controversial 10th JS begins journey' and started in the following way:
The first session of the 10th parliament, elected through national elections marked by low voter turnout, ballot box stuffing and more than a half of the total seats being elected unopposed amid a boycott by most of the parties, began at 6:08pm with no representation of the BNP for the first time since 1990. ....
The BNP at a press conference at the party’s central office at Naya Paltan, meanwhile, said that there was no credit in forming the parliament through ‘farcical elections by killing democracy.’ The party termed the 10th parliament a parliament of ‘jokers.’
Its second leading article was  'Police foil BNP Programmes' and another 'President for polls boycotting parties' dialogue with govt'.

The news of what happened in parliament was placed in a context of there being uncertain legitimacy.

The Dhaka Tribune did not lead with a story on parliament - instead focusing on a story about the 'ten truck case'. Its second leading article did concern parliament and was titled 'Hamid urges opposition to talks'. Reading this story, you would though not get any sense that there was any level of controversy about the parliament at all, and there was no mention about the government stopping the BNP protests.

The Daily Star leading article was titled, 'Shun Anarchy:  urges president at JS without naming any political parties.' This article took a midway position between the New Age and Dhaka Tribune as it did include - though you would have to read right to the very end of the article - the following paragraph:
The new parliament was constituted through the January 5 controversial election, in which 153 MPs -- in more than half of the total JS seats -- were elected unopposed without a single vote being cast. 
In the remaining seats, voter turnout was low. The Election Commission put the turnout at 40 percent.
The Daily Sun's leading article, 'Shun Anarchy, reach consensus' as well as the Independents also took a similar uncritical approach as that of the Dhaka Tribune

So what is going on?

The Daily Star has a reputation as a centrist paper, though with somewhat more sympathies towards the Awami League than the BNP; a strong supporter of 'liberation war' values, anti-Jamaat and also very critical of corruption. Mahfuz Anam, the editor and publisher of the paper, and one of its owners, has written some blistering commentaries critical of the election published in his paper, and continues to do so.

Perhaps, the Daily Star appreciates that it has to live in a new environment with the Awami League apparently unassailable (despite - or because of - the election) quite able and willing to close down newspapers (as it has done with Inquilab in recent weeks) and this may be influencing (at least for now) what and how news gets published on the front page, and particularly how the parliament is described.

The Dhaka Tribune is the country's newest paper, only having been around for about six months. Its editor, Zafar Sobhan has also taken a critical stand against the pre-election Awami League, and the elections - and as with Mahfuz continues to do so. The paper's op-ed pages carry articles from a wide variety of ideological positions - making it the place to read the widest variety of opinions.

However, the dominant director on the Tribune's board, and also its publisher, Anis Ahmed (whose brother, Nabil - also on the board - has just been elected unopposed an a governing party MP) has though taken a pro-Awami League position. It may therefore be that the news choices on the front page of the paper are being influenced more by his positions.

Nurul Kabir, the editor of New Age comes from a leftist background and the paper has a strong anti-establishment position. It is sometimes said that whilst New Age is critical of both the AL and BNP, (sometimes highly critical of both) it is a bit more critical of the AL. It has however taken a principled decision about the election and seems willing to carry this through.

The Sun is owned by the Bushandara group, and the Independent by the Beximco group. In the end, I would suggest, the position taken by both these papers will be determined by the particular interests of the companies at any particular time - and this can change.

An interesting question is how the positions taken by the papers will impact upon their sales? It is often said (though I am not sure there is any evidence to support this) that in Bangladesh, all things being equal, papers perceived as critical of a government do better than those less willing to be critical - presumably because of the anti-incumbency tendency within the country. If this is the case, in the context of the English language papers, perhaps New Age could gain - unless the Daily Star and Dhaka Tribune begin to take a more critical position of the government in its news (rather than just in its op-ed pages). We will have to wait and see.

* Full disclosure: I work at New Age, though am not involved in general production of news stories or editorial decision-making

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