Journalism is not the word for it


Published on April 3, 2023
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Dr. Rashid Askari:  

It's really a shock to the system that one of the leading newspapers of the country—the daily Prothom Alo on the last Independence Day (March 26, 2023) published a piece of news that has stirred up a real hornets’ nest. A correspondent by the name of Shamsuzzaman has filed the report that hints at a near-famine situation in the country, and casts aspersions on the very spirit of independence. The reporter has been arrested for falsifying information about a nationally and politically sensitive issue.

The news is really disgraceful. While Bangladesh has been phenomenally successful in poverty reduction where the rate of poverty has dropped from 47.5% in 1996 to 20.5% in 2020 and the rate of extreme poverty has decreased from 19.3% in 2009 to 10.5% in 2020 and the World Bank itself describes Bangladesh as “a model for poverty reduction”, the Prothom Alo published the report with a photo of a child holding flowers in hands in front of the National Mausoleum at Savar to indicate that a near-famine situation is prevailing in Bangladesh and people have to work their guts out to earn their daily bread.

The report reads that the boy said, “What would I do with the independence if I don’t have rice to eat. I get in a sweat about going to market; we need freedom of fish, meat and rice.”
The news went viral and a social storm is brewing over it. However, after the secret gets out, it is learnt that the boy hired himself out to the reporter for a 10-taka bribe and was made to pose and parrot what he (the reporter) asked him to do. To all intents and purposes, the news is derogatory and furthest removed from reality.

What kind of journalism is this that uses a child for a 10-taka bribe as a tool for a campaign of misinformation? Is it just a shoddy piece of news known as yellow journalism or intentionally misleading? No, yellow-journalism is not the word for it. It’s worse than that. This is a digital crime. Yellow journalism is newspaper reports that are exaggerated to attract readers’ attention. But the Prothom Alo report is a kind of stuff that is at bottom a plot against the present incumbent of the Ganabhaban. This is not journalism for journalism’s sake, rather journalism for vested interests’ sake. This sort of reporting should come to a halt and the unscrupulous reporters under the guise of journalism need to be brought to justice. A deliberate misrepresentation of facts may put the achievement of the country on question, tarnish the image of the government, and create a possibility of deterioration in the law and order situation of the country.

It is highly regrettable that more than five decades after independence, the ghost of yellow journalism is still haunting us. The specter of the myth of Basanti of Kurigram has not yet dismounted from the yellow journalist’s shoulder. The Prothom Alo’s controversial news reminds us of 1974 Basanti Bala’s story which was concocted as a bit of news published in one of the most leading dailies of that time, the Daily Ittefaq to show people facing famine. The supporting picture used in the news was that of a mentally retarded village woman called Basanti Bala who was clad in a fishing net, as she had already worn out her only sari. The myth of Basanti was finally debunked and it was proved that she hired herself out to the reporter and posed for the photograph wearing the fishing net. Besides, the famine which is said to have broken out during that time was explored in Amartya Sen’s famous research as a man-made disaster that must have been carefully crafted to downplay the Mujib Government.

Conspiracies against Bangladesh, Bangabandhu and Sheikh Hasina are not a new phenomenon. Myriad plots and intrigues have taken place since the birth of the country. The conspiracies are hatched mostly by two groups of people—the ones who opposed the Liberation War joining hands with the Pakistan Occupation Army and aided and abetted them; and the other who now are unhappy with Bangladesh growing in the Mujibian way under the leadership of Sheikh Hasina. Their common motive is to prevent Bangladesh from developing as a non-communal state imbued with the secularist spirit of the Liberation War and to bid to unseat Sheikh Hasina at the next election. And the character of the conspirators is clearly perceptible though the communalist forces are changing their appearances and modalities of work to fit in with the changing scenario of the socio-cultural and political life in the country. An organized clique of the present generation people, who do not like to see Hasina at the helm of the country for decades, are joining hands with the communalists and their domestic and international allies, and constantly conspiring against the country.

Plots are still being hatched up at home and abroad to discredit Sheikh Hasina’s Government and overthrow it. The US sanctions on the elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of Bangladesh police called Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and the publication of US State Department’s report on alleged human rights violations in Bangladesh without any prior discussion with the Government smack of a conspiracy theory which is part of a larger conspiracy to destabilize Sheikh Hasina government. Besides, the recent indirect attempts to create 1/11 type scenario, Dr. Yunus’ desperate bid to publish in Washington Post the open letter written by 40 global figures asking Sheikh Hasina to soothe away the Nobel Laureate’s agony, and the organized and repeated smear campaigns by hired hands and the media whose latest expression is the Prothom Alo’s twisted narrative on the Independence Day, are the advanced and sophisticated versions of the game of conspiracy.

The writer is a freethinking writer, academic, translator and former vice chancellor of Islamic University Bangladesh.