Thursday, November 19, 2009

Beware of Bangladesh media!

Don't be carried away with Bangladesh media's emotional coverage of today's verdict on Bangabondhu. They have a habit of changing sides overnight. Pleased to share with you some analyis from a book (Military-media relations in Bangladesh: 1975-1990) which shows how leading Bangla dailies covered the news of coups August and November during 1975.
From the book:

Only four newspapers were in circulation when the first military coup took place on 15 August 1975. The coup happened in the early hours of 15 August and the newspapers could not report the news of the coup on that day.

The August coup: We will now examine the coverage of August coup in the daily lttefaq, which has enjoyed the status of being the largest circulated vernacular daily for a long time. A commentator summed up its political influence with these words. "There are four most powerful organisations in Bangladesh: lttefaq, the military, the bureaucracy and the Awarni League" (Jai Jai Din, 2-8 April 1985).

Ittefaq's banner headline on 16 August stated that Mushtaq Ahmed was the country's new president following a military coup. There was no mention of the killing of President Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in the headline. The second paragraph of the lead story briefly mentioned that Mujib had been killed in his residence during the process of take-over.

A report on the people's reaction to the change was also published in the same issue. The headline said that people felt relieved after the coup. The editorial comment put the blame on the past government: "...the former ruling clique made the intervention of the military inevitable by blocking all means of transfer of power by constitutional means."

After the August coup, the military did not take power and the civilian government of the Awami League continued to rule the country under its new leader. The new government soon embarked upon a Mujib-bashing programme and news of foreign press comments on the coup began to land in the newsrooms through the official news agency, Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS).

The country's newspapers had little choice but to print the official version of comments of the foreign press. Comments which particularly served the official policy were transmitted. lttefaq, which was a strong critic of Mujib's policy when he was alive, found this Mujib-bashing policy suitable for its readership and continued to follow it for six weeks.

Four reports on foreign press comments on the August coup were published in September. Reports of Newsweek (on 2 September), The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Sunday Times and Glasgow Herald (on 3 September) and comments of Japanese press featured prominently in Ittefaq. Other foreign press reports reproduced in Ittefaq's various editions included those of the Far Eastern EconQmic Review (on 17 September) and Illustrated Weekly of India (on 18 September).

At the same time Ittefaq also pursued its own policy of negating Mujib's image by giving prominence to the official report of the White Paper on the previous government which squarely blamed it for its mishandling of the economy. 30 October's front-page coverage of the recovery of arms and ammunition by police from Mujib's residence points to the policy being pursued by the paper.

Ittefaq also gave uncompromising support to the Bangladesh military. Its editorial on 10 September hailed the armed forces as the "saviour of the nation", adding: "It is really pathetic to demonstrate negligence or step-motherly attitude to those [the army] who are an integral and inseparable part of the country." In a signed commentary on 20 October, one of the owners of Ittefaq termed the martial law of August as "martial law with a difference, because it did not dissolve parliament, nor suspended constitution." Brief life sketches of four generals who were appointed as deputy martial law administrators also received good pictorial coverage.

Prior to the August coup, the daily Sangbad had been a sympathiser of the Mujib government and a supporter of the Bangladesh Communist Party. The August coup dealt a severe blow to the working journalists of the paper who felt that the first military coup would force the country to tilt towards the West.

The coup also paved lhe way for the return of Sangbad to its owner by the new government, which seized the opportunity to warn the paper about its future attitude. The Mujib-bashing policy was also reflected in the coverage of foreign press reports in Sangbad.

Troubled November: The events in the first week of November 1975 remain a mystery, as Bangladeshi newspapers at that time were unable to report what was really happening as a result of power struggle within the army. On 3 November Brigadier Khaled Mossarraf successfully elbowed out President Mushtaq Ahmed and became new Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA). Chief of Army Staff General Zia was removed from the post and Justice Abu Sadat Mohammed Sayem was appointed as the new President.

All these dramatic events, except the official announcement of the new appointments, were simply missing from the newspapers' reporting.

The news of the killing of four prominent political leaders in jail on 3 November 1995 took two days to appear in Ittefaq. Its readers were only informed that the President had ordered a judicial inquiry into the event. A presidential statement issued late at night said: " It is necessary to remind the members of the public that the army was not in way involved in this criminal act."

The jail killing clearly upset the supporters of Mujib, who came out in the streets carrying the picture of the slain leader. Ittefaq's coverage of this protest’ on 5 November damaged the credibility of new CMLA who had already been portrayed as pro-Indian by rival political forces. Lifshultz (1979) contends that it was Ittefaq's picture which shattered the prospects of the second military coup of 3 November. It is difficult to ascertain now the real motives behind publishing this picture. However, the analysis shows that Ittefaq strongly condemned the jail killing event in its editorial on 6 November. The black-bordered editorial said: "This killing will also alert those who are opposed to political views held by the victims."

No newspapers were brought out on 7 November when the uprising by the general soldiers against the army officers began. The following day, the newspapers gave extensive coverage of the previous day's event. Ittefaq published big pictures of President Sayem and General Zia. It also published a report on the people's jubilation about the "sepoy mutiny". Its editorial blamed adventurist and reactionary forces for attempting to negate the people's victory. A picture of people mixing with soldiers on top of a tank received wide coverage.

Ittefaq's open support for the armed forces was evident from the publication of three editorials within five days of the soldiers upsurge. Its editorial on 11 November urged the members of the armed forces to remain vigilant against evil forces who were trying to mislead and rob them of their victory.

On the other hand, Sangbad tried to show some kind of loyalty to its supporters by giving extensive coverage to strike news on 6 November. News of demands made by student leaders for restoring full status to Mujib as Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal) also featured prominently in the daily. Sangbad was decidedly shocked at the news of the jail killing and it condemned it in the strongest possible terms: "...there is no doubt that killers and butchers of these leaders are enemies of Bangladesh."

Following the soldiers' uprising, Sangbad also published front-page pictures of the three chiefs of services of the armed services on 8 November. A three-column picture of people celebrating-the victory also featured in the same issue. In its editorial it praised the role of General Zia during the troubled time of 3 to 7 November.

On 28 November Sangbad placed a saying of Prophet Mohammed in a reverse box­ item in the front page. The saying was: "Those who create divisions among friends, give pain to religious-minded people and abuse people, they are surely the wretched among Allah's creation." Another saying of the Prophet was also printed on the following day: "Show honour to honourable people and those who create division will not enter heaven and those creating division will be placed in a separate hell."