Thursday, April 29, 2010

Dhaka Media in despair

Journalism is a profession which symbolizes freedom, and yet that struggle for freedom is still not over in Bangladesh. The BNP government shut down Ekushe Television and forced Simon Dring to leave Dhaka. The 1/11 administration switched off CSB. And now the Awami League has made Channel One its first victim. There may have been legitimate reasons to do so, but as these governments hold more grudges against these media outlets than they are ready to forgive, all the above mentioned closures defy the right of expression.

Simon Dring-led ETV had a strong editorial policy but the then BNP government felt threatened by the immense acceptance and popularity of the then only private terrestrial TV station. The best ever TV newsroom in Dhaka was forced into a wasteland. A group of talented and romantically motivated journalists had to slaughter their dreams and look elsewhere for survival. What they lost in dreams they more or less made up by now being the leading forces in today’s major TV channels. But those Ekushe days never came back. I believe that if they had been allowed to work without such interruptions, TV journalism in Dhaka would have claimed global standards.

But BNP failed to muster such a vision. It stunted the growth of TV journalism by a two-pronged attack: closing down Ekushe and at the same time granting new licenses to unprofessional party workers who saw this profession as a means to whiten their money; the same money and media power that was then used in favor of BNP. Maintaining a Fox TV-type mouthpiece in a democratic society can be justified in the name of ‘liberty’ but the butterfly effect caused by the assassination of ETV led to today’s professional loopholes which allowed the Awami League government to target Channel One. Had BNP then given licenses to professionals instead of money launderers, no subsequent authority would have had the precedented means to shut down Channel One today.

On the other hand, while both CSB and Channel One had dozens of bright, young journalists, porous editorial policies could not provide any beacon of guidance. On top of that the managements of those two channels failed to ensure steady financial support. Hence, we saw the rise of meaningless talk shows and a culture of politically incorrect live feeds. In such a situation any government can be marginally excused for taking advantage of such unprofessionalism. Vulnerable channels would be wise to learn from this latest round of media witch hunting.

The present government argues that as the once jobless ETV journalists could find jobs, it shouldn’t be a problem for those left high and dry by the closure of Channel One, especially now that there are dozens of new channels floating around. But I wonder how many channels can survive on the same stagnant amount of advertisement.

Most big sponsors have their own TV channels to run their advertisements, and the few lone fish should be pragmatic enough to realize that unless you attract stable viewership no investor will part with their money.

Investors in Bangladesh generally do not have the patience for steady returns: they want instant profit and media is a slow earner. Even then media profits are more in terms of power and indirect monies rather than hard cash. So it requires a lot of skill, patience and vision to balance out owner’s interest and editorial independence. What to talk of Dhaka, even stable TV channels in rich, democratic countries cannot escape this conflict. Running a media outlet in Bangladesh has sadly become synonymous with losing a big chunk of ethics for small chunks of money. This is one reason why the post of the Head of News has become a game of musical chairs slumped under the weight of compromises.

Even the most successful of media houses in Dhaka can only afford to pay their staff half of what their contemporaries earn in India or Pakistan. They forget that our young journalists are not coal miners. When owners are awarded licenses without proven business ethics, they are bound to turn media houses into coal mines. The wave of death surrounding young journalists in Dhaka speaks of the level and extent of their exploitation. For proof, just go through the medical reports of News Editors in Dhaka. The last one year alone has seen a dramatic rise in the number of heart attacks and deaths of News Editors.

And we should not forget the fifth columnists within the journalist community: those placed at top positions who enjoy the perks of invitations to neo elite clubs. They are the middlemen, hired with the specific mandate to facilitate media owners’ interests through the poor corridors of newsrooms. Young promising reporters give their best in this worst kind of situation, but day after day of handling egocentric palace conspiracies they become too exhausted to be creative.

Just feel the dichotomy: media owners wear designer suits, dine at five star hotels, drive Prados, abuse their press power to gain political or economic benefits, yet they expect lowly-paid journalists to uphold the middle class myths of honor and sacrifice. Owners don’t want to be burdened with professional remuneration packages but they do want the moon.

But the possibility of a silver lining is still alive. Change can yet come. The second generation of investors, with western education, are stepping in. They are likely to be more open to positive changes. So is the new breed of young journalists which is gradually taking over the helm of media. More importantly, thanks to virtual revolution the audience seems more conscious than ever before.

There can be no escaping the fight for respectful survival. Dhaka journalists are ready for it. The more the government abuses their freedom, the more they are adamant to hit back. Owners of media houses will have to get rid of their medieval feudal attitude and learn the value of an independent media.
On an endearing note, hats off to those few houses that continue to maintain professionalism despite all odds, hats off to those few who deliver unbiased news even while sitting on chairs that might collapse anytime.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Education: back to the Future

Our present education system has been relegated to the status of merely a degree-awarding mechanism that is inherently immune to the quality of students it produces. It wasn’t always like this. There was a time when education was inspirational and full of romanticism for life. To name a few, teachers like Sardar Fazlul Karim, Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, Abdullah Abu Sayeed and Syed Manjoorul Islam were true mentors and role models who shared common aim: to shape lives.

But somewhere along the line, we rebooted ourselves and started to weigh life on the scales set up by corporate induced media reality. This alternate way of life, however, lays no merit on education. It’s just like an army ruler diverting part of the education budget towards defence, thus inadvertently down-playing the importance of education in the development of a nation.

Khan Ata in his portrayal of a philosopher king in Abar Tora Manush Ho tried to convince our freedom fighters to return to classrooms. Such few characters are occasionally honored in our media for their wisdom and chivalry, but to no avail. Teachers have been rendered ineffective and useless; reminiscent of old black and white films in which they symbolize poverty and sorrow. In today’s Bangladesh, a teacher could at best be an object of a corporate campaign ‘sada moner manush’ or receive invitations to state banquettes where their presence is needed to convince the world that reactionary intellectualism is still alive.

Reality is starkly differently. Teachers are routinely manhandled by the very students they teach. Political greed is forcing students away from classrooms and onto delinquent paths.

Our public universities largely breed civil servants with small salary packages as compared to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. They either surrender to the god of corruption or to fate. Trapped by fear of uncertainty, enormous talent is wasted.

Private universities, on the other hand, generate corporate managers with moderate earnings. Their highest achievement is being able to visit coffee shops, wear trendy costumes and live a watered-down version of the American dream. This group anticipates Baishakh just as it enjoys Halloween.

Then there are the madrassahs which produce only zealots. They exist in limbo: caught in the dream of Muslim brotherhood yet choosing to bomb their opposers in the name of religion.

These three streams of society live in parallel reality; cross paths at traffic signals or during Friday prayers. There’s nothing to show for any education: no respect, no tolerance, and no peace. And in this entire game, patriotism is used as a punching bag.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. I believe we have reached the limit of desperation. No education, no future. It is as simple as that. The nation awaits an education policy that will revive the glory of education and, more importantly, educators.

Teachers should be given the honor and privilege that they historically and culturally deserve. It’s hard to believe now, but even in Bangladesh real education flourished at a time when teachers were accorded the status of being ‘the wise men’ of society. We need to redevelop that mindset. We need to inculcate among masses that teachers are not mere imparters of information; rather they are those who guide us through the web of knowledge towards wisdom.

And in order to do that the first step is to make this profession more lucrative as compared to other sectors. Remunerations and perks for our educators should at least be brought at par with corporate and bureaucratic scales. This step alone will be enough to attract those intelligent and visionary students who are passionate about teaching but reluctant to make a career out of it.

Once teachers are released from the stress of making ends meet, they will have more dedication, energy and time for their students. Bangladesh is running out of everything: energy, water, patience and peace. The time has come for the government to realize that the multi-faceted crisis facing Bangladesh cannot be solved without capable and honest leaders. Luckily, this is not a chicken & hen dilemma. We know for a fact that sound education is the only means to evolve a nation capable of handling itself.

Another point of concern is that the criminalization of politics and failure of state mechanism are at a climax. Both the Awami League and BNP should stop spoiling their student cadres and start vocational trainings for them so that these young party activists can be turned into revenue earners instead of living lives based on extortion and petty handouts.
The people of Bangladesh have been ready for a long time to make sacrifices for the sake of good education for their children. It’s now up to policy makers to pre-empt calls for social revolt.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Road to social justice! No left, no right

The 1971 war criminals’ trial is finally on the move to provide closure to victims’ families. Those from Bangladesh who sold their soul to the rulers of Pakistan and collaborated with the Yahiya regime are set to be tried for crimes against humanity. They are not only accused of loots, kills and rapes but also of helping foreign forces in identifying and eliminating freedom fighters and intellectual patriotic assets.

Their treason notwithstanding, Bangladesh came into existence. But they didn’t give up; were neither apologetic nor repentant. Instead the traitors took to vengeance and collaborated with a discontent faction of the Bangladesh army to assassinate the Father of the Nation and prominent national leaders.

Vengeance later took another twist with the torturing of religious minorities and aboriginal communities in the name of God. The spirit of Islam was exploited to generate global terror. Offshoots of the same vengeance sprouted up under the shadows of BNP’s pro-right mindset, having been disgusted with Awami League’s village politics and its political idiosyncrasies. Thus, we saw another wave of crimes against fellow humans on the pretext of Shariah. But nature probably has had enough of this. It is being impelled to bring the perpetrators face-to-face with their crimes, even after 35 to 40 years. All the extrajudicial and political killings of leftists, freedom fighters, students and civilians in last 40 years could have been avoided if only the war criminals of 1971 had not been allowed to establish the myth that in Bangladesh everything is permissible, even crime.

Bangladesh is rife with success stories of crime and corruption. Awami League and BNP have both earned Champion’s Trophy term after term for encouraging cardinal vices. And that’s the yardstick dangling in front of our youth. They are a generation with potential worth gold, yet teetering at the crossroads between white and black. Really, it’s sad that despite knowing the difference between good and bad, our youth can still be tempted to waver in their choices. They have come to think that the road to crime and corruption at least has a success span of 35 to 40 years, and if they are very good at being very bad, they might even not be prosecuted in their lifetime.
An entire generation saw freedom fighters and honest to God patriots die without treatment while the corrupt, dishonest and selfish leaders would fly out to Mount Elizabeth or some other five-star hospital abroad. This comparison alone is enough to make it easy for the young of mind to choose the road that drives through Mount Elizabeth. But the criminal trials of ’71 and ’75 are proving to be Aesop’s proverbial dog in the manger. It’s like nature wants the accused to live longer so that they are fit enough for the gallows.

News has it that top BNP leader Tareq Rahman plans to build a health city of global standard in Bangladesh. A profitable project, no doubt, but only if our corrupt top guns find it as comfortable as Mount Elizabeth. Digressing back to nature, space and time are forever big avengers of justice. Awami League’s call for ‘Digital Bangladesh’ has already made the free flow of information irreversible, allowing the youth unadulterated access to facts related to events like the trial of Bangabandhu’s killers, the ongoing war criminals’ trials, extrajudicial killings and nationwide corruption. With historical truths just a click away, each young internet user is gradually becoming as empowered and vigilant as a freedom fighter of 1971.

This had to happen. Through the rise and fall of nations history has proven that nature intervenes when the state of affairs go from bad to worse. No longer can the ruling elite of Bangladesh live in denial. Despite reaping the fruits of political polarization and dynastic democracy, BNP leader Tareq Rahman and AL think-tank Sajib Wajed Joy are both tech-savvy enough to pre-empt the winds of change.

Not all of the 40 years of our existence were in vain. Bangladesh has, after all, nurtured a deprived-of-rights but conscious generation striving to hold onto the secular traditions of our society. Those who died unattended in government hospitals uttered till their last breath that truth and justice were no myths, that nature didn’t wield unequal yardsticks whether it came to AL, BNP, Jamaat or any other person or group. We sympathized with those thoughts, but were never quite sure of their manifestations. But now those very thoughts are beginning to take shape, at least we have started questioning faults in the system at every step. I believe the age of reckoning and enlightenment has arrived in Bangladesh, a moment of awakening at the crossroads: that there can be no left or no right on the highway to social justice.