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OP-ED: What makes a public intellectual?

  • Published at 10:22 pm July 14th, 2020
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Adapt to online education, or get left behind BIGSTOCK

Not everyone understands the issues well enough to give policy advice

I taught journalism and media studies at different universities. If I were still teaching at a university, I would have asked students to write an essay on the topic: “Talk Shows, columns, and the making of public intellectuals in Bangladesh.”

The critical inquiry could be on how the media in Bangladesh is transforming people like Shahed Karim into public intellectuals, and thus elevating them socially, politically, and economically. Here, the politics-media-business nexus should be discussed at length by applying various theories of political economy, propaganda, etc.

In the textbooks of journalism, the reporters are mentioned as merely the “neutral observers of events.” But the roles of newspaper columnists and television talk show commentators go beyond that -- they create public opinion, which has an impact on public policy.

On what basis is the media selecting these talk show guests and columnists, whose views are influencing public policy? Are all of them capable? Or like Shahed Karim, are many of them being given exposure to build up their business fortunes?

It is not right to blame journalists in all cases. The power of owners in private institutions is immense, which I am well aware of due to my employment in the private sector.

Whatever might be the reasons to focus on them, public interest is harmed in this attempt to make these people public intellectuals through the media. If we select a few contemporary issues and see the subsequent media debates, we can get a fairly good idea about this. A relatively young researcher in media studies may do more research on this.

Debates on lockdown

The efficacy of a nationwide closure or blanket lockdown has been questioned by only a few, and in the media almost everyone advocated for the lockdown. Have these public intellectuals thought about the dire situation that would result for the working people of the country, especially the middle class?

We have to evaluate now what we have achieved by following other countries. We have so far lost two to three thousand people due to Covid 19. Every life is important, but millions of families are paying the price now for the lockdown. People have started leaving big cities, including Dhaka, and their dreams have been shattered.

Now, many foreign scholars are opposing the lockdown. We have had more or less the same situation as what renowned political economist Professor Francis Fukuyama mentioned regarding India in his very recent article in Foreign Affairs. He says India increased its vulnerability by declaring a sudden nationwide shutdown without thinking of its consequences for the tens of millions of migrant labourers. In his article, he also says that many went to their rural homes, spreading the disease throughout the country. Once the government began to restrict movement, a large number of people found themselves trapped in cities without work, shelter, or care.

He is not the only one. Many are talking about the horrific situation that has arisen as a result of the nationwide lockdown across countries. But in the media, many Bangladeshi intellectuals have failed to come up with a unique and indigenous approach relevant to Bangladesh.

As a common citizen, I personally understood that a blanket lockdown in Bangladesh would create a terrible situation for the middle and lower classes. I could not advocate this in the media or on Facebook.

Public intellectuals work on public affairs, and their duty is to look at a problem as a whole and to try to influence public policy.

Digital Security Act and media literacy

In the case of the Digital Security Act, if we look at the media debates, we see that much of the debate revolves around either political or legal or human rights aspects. I am not questioning this, but one important thing that is being left out in the media discussion is the issue of media literacy of our people.

A few days back, I was watching a video shared on Facebook. In the video, one person was found to be crying and apologizing for his recent Facebook post where he demanded the execution of Ayman Sadiq of 10 Minute School. Later, it went viral, and he is in danger now.

I did not see the full video, but this is what is happening around us nowadays. People are attacking each other and defaming, expressing malice. No one is immune to a social media onslaught. Politicians apart, teachers, religious leaders, writers, intellectuals, and journalists all are personally attacked.

One of the reasons is that many of us have no knowledge about the use of social media. As writers, we do not want the Digital Security Act, but at the same time, we want a safe social media environment. Hate speech cannot be stopped unless we teach the nation how to use media in their day to day life.

Like many other countries, the subject of media studies should be incorporated in the curriculum in educational institutes at different levels. Media studies or related subjects are taught in many private and public universities in our country. Sadly, with the deteriorating state of the media industry in our country, the importance of the subject is also declining. It is difficult to accept that the significance of media studies is diminishing in the 21st century, which is marked by the information and communication revolution.

We believe that media graduates can be recruited in different schools and colleges to teach and give ideas about media. I think the issue of media literacy should come up in the discussion whenever we discuss the Digital Security Act.

The question of house rent

Another strange discussion I see in the media is the demand that landlords should halve or reduce the house rent in Dhaka and other major cities. Is it a feasible idea? How can the government enact any law in this respect? Many speakers and eminent people are bringing examples of Western countries. Is there any social security in this country like in those countries?

There are different types of landlords in Dhaka city. Firstly, there are places like Baridhara, Gulshan, Banani, where many diplomats and international organizations are rented. They did not ask to reduce the rent.

Secondly, this narrative about landlords is no longer valid now. Many houses have become apartments, and we see 15, 20, 30 or more owners of each building. Many have rented out their apartments after taking bank loans. Again, various dormitories have been developed for the students of private universities in Dhaka where the rental is all-inclusive, taken along with the bills. Many people are maintaining their families through rental.

Many columnists and talk show guests do not understand these details, and want a kind of blanket waiver in the whole Dhaka city. It is really funny, and policy-makers cannot pay heed to such demands. What they could demand is other types of incentives to be given to the lower or middle classes.

Educating online

Similar discussions are going on about online education. It seems that public university teachers in particular are not prepared, and talk show people are bringing up the issue of a digital divide.

What they are missing here is that the concept of distance education or e-learning or online education first started to reach those who were deprived or marginalized. It was introduced to reduce the time and space gap and to reach out the unreachable. This is why online education is gaining increased currency globally.

Public universities were less interested in integrating ICT in teaching and learning. But some private universities are very advanced. I saw the use of Moodle or LMS when I was teaching at ULAB almost 10 years ago. Needless to say, our public universities were not as interested in e-learning as they were in evening courses.

As a result, the culture of online education or ICT integration in teaching and learning has not developed in public universities. They are now in big trouble, having a large number of students from both regular courses and evening courses.

The fact is, there is no alternative to online education now. If we want the internationalization of our education, then we must follow the international norms. Poor students have to be brought into the mainstream through financial assistance.

In other countries, I have seen mobile companies offering free SIM cards to students at the beginning of the semester, including talk-time and internet packages. Gradually, all students should be brought under online education in consultation with the government and mobile companies. There are different models for this. Criticism alone is not an effective approach.

With these examples, what I wanted to convey is that if the talk show speakers or columnists are not experienced, various misconceptions will be introduced in society.

During the pandemic, we are noticing many high profile persons are sitting at home, either writing columns, or giving their views on talk shows. Some of them are definitely qualified, but not all of them are.

The media has to stop this trend in its own interest, and in the interest of the country. Otherwise, the people will suffer, and policy-makers will get confused.

Md Shamsul Islam is a media consultant and a newspaper columnist.