Should the media be meek and malleable?
For the last couple of days there has been a marked social media backlash against the midnight incarceration of Bangla and Dhaka Tribune correspondent Ariful Islam in Kurigram, reportedly for possessing half a bottle of alcohol and 150 grams of cannabis.
As per the reports going around, the detained journalist allegedly incurred the wrath of the head of the district administration for writing about a pond named after her.
Whatever the case behind the manhandling of the journalist and the eventual arrest, the thing that becomes clear is that assertive media is something which is not appreciated.
The arrest plus the reported ransacking of the house of the journalist for allegedly possessing alcohol and some cannabis seems a little too forceful.
Obviously, if the district authorities showed this zealousness across the country in nabbing anyone with drugs, then we would not have Yaba or Phensidyl in the market, and all the kingpins of drugs, irrespective of their links to the power structure, would be behind bars.
Anyway, 27 years in this profession has made one thing clear -- most institutions prefer journalists who are malleable, tractable and, sorry to say, meek.
Experience in the development sector
I have about a decade’s experience in the development sector, working at several well-known organizations, and in each one found a desire to interact with media personnel who can be easily influenced.
Once, around 2013, as the communications head of a multi-national, I had to deal with a very delicate issue of the termination of Bangladeshi employees in the name of cost-cutting. The matter triggered great resentment among the locals because, while Bangladeshi staff were being asked to leave, the internationally appointed ones were untouched. At that time, a press conference was arranged, since the media got hold of the news and made some noise.
As a communications person, I had the unenviable task of minimizing the damage for the organization, and though my heart went out for the terminated ones, I was duty bound to safeguard the organization’s reputation and its country director at that time.
The matter became so complex at one point that the regional head had to fly in to face the media. At the conference, the journalists were forthright, asking penetrating questions which naturally unnerved the regional boss.
Later, he went and reported to the regional communications person that he had faced a hawkish media. When the regional communications person came and asked me about the trenchant media, I was astonished: Why did you expect the media to be dovish?
In fact, there have been several occasions when I was told to get journalists who would be tractable and amenable. On one occasion, the instruction was specific: Get someone who is mediocre and won’t ask incisive questions.
Truth is, mordant media is disliked, and a mild one welcome.
Ramifications of a docile media
Everyone likes positive publicity and any institution, whether it’s government-owned or private, usually wants to airbrush the grime and present the triumphs. But, unless media brings out the follies, aberrations will one day overpower the successes. Worse, the masses will feel that that there isn’t anyone to take up their cause.
The task of district-level media is to ensure that the government’s development work is carried out properly with minimum corruption and malpractice. Therefore, the media in districts have the duty to highlight the works that benefit the masses and focus on areas where abuse of power has taken place.
Let’s take the ongoing drug crackdown as an example. It’s common knowledge that yaba is the main scourge and has spread across the country.
The methamphetamine-based drug comes to the cities from districts that have borders and therefore, the main kingpins are often outside the capital. Unless the media in the districts are vocal and take a united stand, the drug-related battle will prove to be futile.
Let’s look at the issue from the angle of those who are studying journalism or are fresh out of university and want to enter the profession. What concept will these young minds have when they see journalists being harassed and forced to take an emollient tone?
Media has to be doubly incisive in the current atmosphere because with the discovery of stashed money at the homes of politically-linked people, a mercenary world, so far carefully concealed, has come out.
To uproot the cycle of venality involving casino king Samrat to the queen of sin Papia, the support of the media is crucial. Though it has to be kept in mind that rotten elements within the government are also undermining the effort of the power in place and these also need to be exposed.
It’s in the interest of the government to ensure that civil servitude does not morph into civil serfdom.
Towheed Feroze is News Editor at Bangla Tribune and teaches at the University of Dhaka.