Saturday, January 18, 2014

My Thoughts on Bangladesh – Part 8


In the late 1970s I lived in Canada for two winters and had the honor of studying under a very brilliant professor – Dr. Muhammad Nabil Esmail. He is an Egyptian Canadian internationally recognized as an expert on computational methods in engineering. As a foreign student coming from a third world country, I was afraid of computer, let alone computational modeling using finite difference, - element and - volume methods to solve a series of highly complex, non-linear partial differential equations. He was a gifted teacher who knew how to transform my fear into love, and to this date, I remain indebted to him for making that transformation possible and easy for me.

In a casual conversation with me one day Professor Esmail said that if he could see a newspaper from any country he could tell about the economic condition of that country without even studying anything about that country. It is worth mentioning here that Prof. Esmail’s research work in rheology, coating processes in pulp and paper, and transport phenomena problems has greatly advanced our understanding of those areas. So, to claim knowledge about a country’s economy by just looking at the quality of the printing on the newspaper was not a big deal for him!

Nearly 35 years have since passed by and Bangladesh is a much stronger economy these days than it was back then. The quality of printing papers used in newspapers, magazines and books has significantly improved.  However, when it comes to the quality of journalism, I don’t think that we have the quality of journalists that we had back then. They seemed more honest and less corrupt. Just some examples below may help here to see my point.  

In 2005 I rushed to Bangladesh to rescue my family properties from a land-grabbing syndicate that was used by Salauddin Qader Chowdhury (an MP from Chittagong who was then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s adviser on parliament affairs) and his son F. Q. Chowdhury (Fayyaz). The front-man of the criminal syndicate was Jaker Hosain Chowdhury – who, reportedly, during 1971 Bangladesh’s liberation war was a Rajakar that collaborated with the Pakistan military; he was an employee in a madrasa before developing skills in forgery and extortion to victimize vulnerable people. Soon after my arrival in Dhaka, I was advised by my well-wishers to call a press conference in the Dhaka Press Club. The rental fee for reserving a good sized meeting room there for an hour or two of press conference was rather high by Bangladeshi standard. We also had to provide lunch packages for all those reporters and photographers. The conference was well attended and as first-timers – amateurs - I think we did fairly well to educate the audience about the nature of the land-grabbing crime which had victimized my family, in spite of all the legitimate titles and document that we held, let alone the uninterrupted legal possession of the said land parcel for more than half a century.

The next morning, we bought more than a dozen of newspapers – Bengali and English – to check which newspaper had published our press conference. I was simply shocked to see that only one newspaper – the Daily Janakantha – had the decency, guts or moral high ground to cover our press conference in the last page! (The only other exception was the Weekly Holiday, which had been publishing my articles for many years; it posted an article by me on the subject.) Not a single other daily – even any of the many English newspapers that have carried my articles and essays for all those years – had that moral courage to cover our story. I simply could not understand their justification. I felt betrayed! An insider later informed me that my family simply had wasted our money, and what we should have done, instead, was to pay in advance two or three reporters handsomely and they would have covered our story properly. Since we had not invested on the journalists, ours was a lost case for such coverage in any of those dailies. What was more shocking was the revelation (relayed by SaQa’s in-laws) that some of those reporters that had attended our press conference went to SaQa’s family and relatives disclosing what they had heard in the press conference. They were probably handsomely paid off for sharing such information.

The next day, a young reporter working for an English newspaper came to meet me at my in-law’s Paribagh residence. He seemed serious but related that since his knowledge of English was not up to the mark he would rather have me write a mock question and answer piece on the subject. After some hesitation, I agreed to do him the favor, and handed over my so-called interview paper. The next day, he said that for the piece to appear in his newspaper I need to pay him a few thousand Bangladeshi taka. I could not believe what I was hearing. I was so furious that I almost screamed at him and told him to get out immediately.

Obviously, I had no knowledge at the time about the cancerous spread of corruption in the media. I should have known: when the head of the fish is rotten, it’s simply foolish to expect that other parts are healthy.  When the entire society from top to bottom is swimming in an ocean of corruption it is difficult to find people that have remained uncorrupt. In Bangladesh to survive, I am told, one must either pay or receive bribe. Those who can’t will drown! There is no middle ground.

Many young journalists have learned this evil trade quite well and have been able to lead lives that are only possible for the filthy rich guys. Many of the journalists are known to own lavishly decorated flats or apartments in posh areas of major cities and own expensive cars which could not have come from their salary. How could they afford such luxury when they are paid so poorly in their jobs? Many of these young journalists, sadly, have no scruples, and have become experts in extortion. They would blackmail their targets – good or bad guys – to draw huge sums of money. Instead of openly disclosing or sharing their unbiased, objective findings on such sensitive issues they are known to extort money from those alleged criminals or bigwigs under the threat of disclosing their findings. So, if they are handsomely paid off, such ‘sensitive’ investigative reports simply never see the light of the day; otherwise, those reports become the headlines in news reporting.

Two years ago, two journalists were found dead in Dhaka in their own apartment. They died of multiple stab wounds in the late hours of the night. They were married to each other. Their murder still remains unsolved. In October of 2012, 7 of the 8 suspects were arrested but no motives were found except that they were all professional killers for hire. The DNA of the suspects did not, however, match the samples taken from the crime scene raising the doubt whether those suspects were linked to that crime.

Some journalists suspect that the couples’ investigative journalism on corruption in the energy sector might have led to their death. They theorize that the couple had sensitive information about land acquisition by a "powerful” corporation, which made sure that such information never saw the light by hiring professional killers to silence them forever. And there are others who believe that the slain journalists had tried to extort money from the ‘powerful’ group by threatening that if they were not handsomely paid off they would leak the sensitive information for public consumption. So, the story goes that they were killed by professional killers.

I don’t know if we would ever know the real truth behind the much talked about murder of those two journalists in Bangladesh. We are, thus, forced to only guess on the root causes. However, I won’t be surprised at all if the truth lied with the latter possibility of extortion. If this journalist couple had reliable information on a ‘powerful’ corporation or people, what stopped them from publishing or airing it? Does not their profession require that they share such findings to the public honestly and unbiasedly?

But greed is eating up the moral fabric in Bangladesh, and extortion is becoming an established norm these days polluting the field of journalism.

During my meetings with a family friend who runs women’s hostels in Chittagong city, she mentioned how some journalists had tried to extort money from her. They falsely accused that her hostel residents – who are mostly single, unmarried professionals who can’t afford living in apartments for the rentals charged – were engaged in sex business. It was an outrageous accusation and absolutely false. Some reporters had called her saying that they could correct the story by refuting the false accusation provided she agreed to pay them huge sums of money. She did not want to pay anything and ignored the matter altogether on the advice of her husband. The matter died down.

Cases of this kind are not uncommon in Bangladesh when honest, hard-working tax-paying individuals are targeted by immoral journalists to fatten their coffers. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh because of the ‘power’ of the press, or perception in that regard, ordinary people are afraid to mess up with anyone related to journalism or press by suing them for their wilful distortions and manufactures of false information. One of the largest land-owners in Bangladesh who was tired of extortions and threats from land-grabbing criminal syndicates that had targeted his huge real estate properties once told me how he had sold some plots to journalists at a fraction of the true market price. This way, if those criminals from land-grabbing syndicates ever threaten him, or his real-estate business, he has now ‘powerful’ friends within the media world to fight with him against those vultures. His smart planning has saved his real estate business from incessant attempts by criminal syndicates. After all, no one wants to mess up with journalists!

As is often the practice around the globe, unless the country is of course Burma or similar authoritarian states, journalists have easy access to places where access of others is limited at best. People expect them to serve as their conduits to relay their pieces of the story, and sometimes they are lucky in that regard without costing them too much. But in Bangladesh, when the journalists are invited and even paid for their travel related expenses to cover an event, they want the extra ‘sweetening’ money to cover such events in their news reports. Unless the hosting party is willing to pay such extra money or alternatives demanded by the journalists, such events may never see their mention anywhere in news media and TV channels.

We live in an age of information super highways. Many rich guys have seen the enormous power of media in molding public perception. Naturally, they are now owners of TV channels, radio stations and newspapers or internet sites. Their media channels are used to further their business interests and political aims. Bangladesh is no exception to this newly found source of power. It is being abused terribly! The employers have shown their employees means to enrich themselves in this bazaar of obscene immorality and un-satiating greed. 

The noble profession of journalism is now tainted by this new breed of journalists that are money savvy and willing to serve the mammon rather than sharing unmolested truth that helps to grow and nourish a healthy, conscious and aware citizenry. Thus, no wonder, many university-going smart guys in Bangladesh today aspire to become journalists rather than opting for a career in medicine, engineering, science and technology.

 >>> To be continued >>>

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