Monday, May 26, 2014

Sajeeb's attack on Prothom Alo

In case you missed it, last week Sajeeb Wajed, the Bangladesh prime minister’s son, laid into the country’s most popular newspaper, Prothom Alo. He stated:
"I am shocked that Prothom Alo, our largest Bengali newspaper, referred to our War of Liberation as an India-Pakistan war. By doing so they have insulted the memories of 3 million martyrs who were brutally murdered during the war. I consider this a heinous offence and those responsible must be sacked immediately.

It, however, does not surprise me. If you will recall, during the military regime from 2007-2008 Prothom Alo quite openly backed the dictatorship. They have proven time and again that they do not believe in democracy.

Now they have proven that they do not even believe in Bangladesh. Let us boycott Prothom Alo and send them a message. We will oppose anyone who does not support Bangladesh.”
On the most flimsy grounds, Sajeeb seeks to portray as ‘anti-national’ the country’s most popular, professionally run and independently minded newspaper.

Sajeeb focuses on a single article published in the paper, a profile of India’s new prime minister, which described the country’s independence war as ‘the Indo-Pakistan’ war. The article was not an editorial, not even written by Prothom Alo’s staff, but was (according to the Daily Star) a syndicated Indo-Asian News Service article – which was apparently also published in other newspapers.

Prothom Alo clearly made an unintentional mistake in not throughly editing the news agency article. But does Prothom Alo regularly describe the 1971 war as ‘Indo-Pakistan war? No. Has it ever done this before? I very much doubt it. Does it deserve on the basis of this one error to be pilloried like this. Absolutely not.

But Sajeeb appears uninterested in this reality, instead seeing it as an opportunity to have a go at the newspaper.

Why the dislike of Prothom Alo?
Within the country's corridors of power, it is not just Sajeeb who dislikes Prothom Alo. His mother, the prime minister clearly has similar views. At a press conference for the International media held immediately following ‘election’ on 5 January 2014, she said the following (see answer 16)
Now you mention one newspaper, though its name is totally different, Prothom Alo you mentioned. Do you know the name of Prothom Alo? It is ‘First light’, but do you know their job Everything they look for darkness. That is the problem.
The stated reason for Sajeeb's animus seems to be his claim that the paper 'openly backed the dictatorship' in power during 2006/7. This is not the moment to look in detail at that period, to balance out the failings and achievements of that interregnum or indeed to look at the extent to which the paper did or did not openly support those in power at the time. Nonetheless, the following points need to be made about that argument:

- Whilst, the government in power in 2007/9 was clearly NOT democratic with the powers of the caretaker government  determined and circumscribed by the military and with a state of emergency in effect, it is surely hyperbole to describe that period as 'a dictatorship'.

- Sheikh Hasina is reported in a US state department cable written a few days before army intervention and the promulgation of the state of emergency as having supported the army taking over.

- Presumably, Sajeeb is perhaps understandably incensed by the arrest of his mother and other political leaders in that period. Lets assume, for the sake of argument, that Sheikh Hasina and the other leaders were all falsely accused of the offenses, and were being detained on 'trumped-up' charges. If that was the case, then how does Sajeeb respond to the fact that the Awami League government has done exactly the same thing during its last five years of power, having arrested many opposition leaders and others on similarly 'trumped-up' charges, where they have been detained for long stretches of time (those, for sure, not as long as those who were detained during the emergency period).

- The main project that was completed during the 2 year period was the creation of a new voter list. A key reason why the Awami League was boycotting the polls in the January 2007 period was because of their (legitimate) view that the voter list was unfair and contained millions of bogus voters. Who was the main beneficially of this new voter list created by this 'dictatorship', and also the subsequent free and fair elections that took place under it? It was the Awami League.

So, in my view Sajeeb's rationale for his dislike of Prothom Alo does not stack up - and it is much more likely that it is the paper's popularity and independent approach that is behind Sajeeb's animosity. There are of course other media in Bangladesh taking an independent line – but no other paper has Prothom Alo’s resources, quality of reporting, or reach.

For some in the government, the paper is a thorne in its side which they would like, at the very least, to bring down a peg or two. At best, they might want to neutralize it.

Sajeeb’s short face book posting is a shot against the papers’ bow. It is notable that, like his many other face book posting quite popular having received (at the time of writing) a tally of over 12,000 'likes'. However, those interested in an independent media (which will of course will sometimes make mistakes!), one must hope that Sajeeb's censoriousness and bullying rhetoric does not succeed.

‘Fundamentalist’ mindset
It is interesting that Sajeeb thought that highlighting the mis-description of the 1971 war (from Bangladesh’s perspective) could justify arguing that the paper had ‘insulted the memories of 3 million martyrs who were brutally murdered during the war', and so the paper had committed 'a heinous offence’ and indicated that the paper did not ‘support Bangladesh’.

This kind of hyperbolic denunciation reflects the increasing ‘fundamentalist’ mindset common amongst certain sections of people in Bangladesh relating to discussion of the 1971 war.

It is not that I (or indeed I am sure Prothom Alo) disagree with Sajeeb’s view about how the 1971 war should be described. However, Sajeeb’s condemnation of Prothom Alo - along with demands made a few days latter outside the paper’s office (in which people chanted ‘No mercy for history distorter’ and ‘Matiur Rahman is Pakstani agent’) for the arrest of its editor and cancellation of the publication - is quite something else.

It is a mirror image of the mindset (not a reflection of the tactics, is should be emphasised) that results in attempted silencing at the hand of religious fundamentalists from the right.

For those who disagree with this comparison (who think perhaps my comparison is an exaggeration) look no further than the most recent attack on Pakistani’s Geo TV station

The TV station has recently been criticized by clerics across Pakistan for broadcasting a staged "wedding" of two celebrities which involved a Sufi song about the marriage of Muhammad's daughter – a popular element to many ordinary weddings in Pakistan – in which it was claimed that a comparison was being drawn between her and the controversial actor Veena Malik.

In Pakistan, the clerics will condemn you for playing the wrong kind of sufi music or playing it in the wrong way; in Bangladesh others will damn you just as harshly for 'unorthodox' writing about the 1971 war.

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