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Saturday Feature
The role of the press
Enayet Rasul

          The responsibility of the press in a setting like Bangladesh can be invaluable . The press here is playing its part in putting pressures on governments when all governments in Bangladesh have tended to be authoritarian in some respects or cases. In fully democratic countries, many issues of public interest or public grievances are well taken care of or redressed respectively from the functioning of an independent judiciary. In Bangladesh, the judiciary is yet to enjoy complete freedom from the executive. The parliament in Bangladesh is also found to be not so enlightened like the one in the UK where it cannot think of making repressive or regressive laws. In Bangladesh, its lawmakers in many cases are deficient and can give their assent to any law with little regard for its anti democratic spirit without feeling a pinch in their conscience.
In such a situation, the press in Bangladesh-- with its freedom of expression-- has been working reasonably as the mouthpiece of the people seeking or demanding from the government of the day relief, redress or deliverance from various woes and ills. Indeed, the press in Bangladesh remains the best hope for the people -- in the absence of well developed democratic institutions --to represent them and put pressure on the government to listen to their various complaints and respond to them.
But unfortunately, the press here has its lapses too and some of them can be of a serious nature. Let me given an example. This writer was most annoyed by the most irresponsible conduct of the organizers of a meeting of the main ruling party in the heart of Dhaka city on Tuesday. The BNP on that day created a podium right in the middle of the thoroughfare that leads from zero point in the Gulistan area towards Paltan. This is a very busy intersection of the city and a hub of communication of sorts for the traffic which go in all directions. Any interference with the traffic flow here can cause very severe or adverse reactions on the entire traffic movement or management in the city.
Thus, it was a wonder how the BNP leaders could think of selecting the broad expanse of this road as the venue for their mass rally. The calling of the meeting led to a big assemblage of the party workers and supporters there. This led to an automatic blockage of the roads on two sides. More blockages occurred in nearby roads as intending participants in that meeting marched towards its venue at the Paltan crossing near Muktangan in rows and rows with festoons and banners. Furthermore, the policemen on duty there suddenly cordoned off the entire area and forced the traffic to turn around and travel in other directions. From the twin effects of road blockage and forcing of the traffic not to use that area, all on a sudden, a complete motionless scene of vehicles appeared in central Dhaka for hours.
The traffic flows which were not allowed entry through Paltan crossing entered lanes and by-lanes of the area and soon came to a standstill as they could not get out as the opening of these conduits had been also ordered impassable by policemen. Similar restriction on traffic movement already were being enforced on the main roads. Thus, the whole area suddenly turned into an unbelievable scene of all sorts of vehicles sitting quietly at rest with their bumpers almost pushing against one another. And thus they sat for some hours till the cordons and restrictions on movement were lifted.
Meanwhile, thousands and thousands of people had the harrowing experiences of various types as they could not travel to their destinations, missed appointments, could not go to doctors or hospitals, could not transport their children from schools to homes, etc. Indeed, the great standstill must have been the talk of the town that evening. This writer had a wedding ceremony to attend that evening for which he was delayed unusually because of the artificially created road block. Even at that function he heard many of the guests who were expressing their disgust due to their sordid experiences of getting delayed. Many of them could not return home and tidy up for the function as it was too late and came to the function directly at least two hours after the time mentioned in the cards with a weary and grimy look.
Now, the big question is why such a meeting was called there in the first place and why did the police did what they did meaning why they so abruptly put up barricades against traffic flow. It could not be that the organisers of the meeting as well as the policemen had no idea of the consequences of their actions. But they decided not to care in the least as they seemed to deliberately create such very great torments for the people from their most irresponsible and unconscionable activities.
The political culture in Bangladesh has not changed profoundly. But from the nineties, some change had appreciably occurred. The same include the holding of public meetings at pre designated places specially in the big field of the Paltan Maidan ( Outer Stadium). The holding of meetings in the field does not so much affect traffic movement and the use of the Paltan Maidan in recent times was noted to be producing a salutary effect in helping to keep traffic movement-reasonable-- whenever such meetings were called. Both the opposition and the ruling parties in the present decade appeared to have come to a consensus on using the Paltan Maidan as the venue for their meetings and this change in mentality was out of a concern not to disturb the traffic flow in the city.
Why then the sudden digression from this rule ? It begged an answer specially in the backdrop of the very great suffering of the people on Tuesday afternoon and evening from the same. Citizens are not expected to spontaneously protest such wrongs. The press is eagerly expected by the citizens to bring the knowledge of such misdeeds to those who matter and demand an explanation or accountability for the same. Only from such instant actions of the press the government or authorities are duly sensitized to whatever they have done wrong and made conscious of their responsibility of not doing it again and to care. It was, therefore, duly expected by this writer that on the following day the newspapers would be awash with photos and reports of the great hazards faced by the residents of Dhaka from the manner a political party conducted its public meeting. But to his great surprise, not even half a column of space was devoted to this happening by any of the newspapers he went through on Wednesday and he indeed scans at least half a dozen leading dailies every day from end to end. It appeared as if a news black out was ordered about it and it was dutifully followed by the newspapers' management.
But it could not be. There was no such order and no purposeful omission in drawing attention to the ill effects of this event. Very probably, the lack of news about it was just one of those things for which the press in Bangladesh sometimes gets a bad name. None in the news sections or higher up in the newspapers probably thought much about the traffic paralysis or took it casually as just one of those occurances which did not deserve coverage .
If this was the judgement of the press about the great traffic immobility in central Dhaka on Tuesday afternoon, then it was a very poor one indeed. The traffic paralysis was no small matter. It involved great hardships for the citizens, their suspended rights of freedom of passage and movement. Besides, it marked a complete turnabout from the gradually forming political culture of staging political rallies but doing the same without blocking roads.
All of these vital aspects dictated the need for the press to be furious on the following day with scathing reports and photograph of the mess and demanding an explanation for the same from the BNP leadership and the police. Not doing of the same will only encourage repetition of similar arbitrary actions on the part of the political parties and the police. Only when accountability is pressed by the press in relation to any authority, institution or the government, as the case may be, some pressure is created and it goads the wrong doer into thinking that they should not do it again from the fear of glaring and hostile publicity of their misdeed.
The above is just one recent example of how the press in Bangladesh can fail to rise to the occasion or live up to people's expectations. If one cares to do so, more of such lapses of the press can be cited over a period of time. Thus, it is important for those-- who are at the steering wheel in the press-- to wake up to these failures on their part. The press in Bangladesh obviously has its achievements to be proud of in defending people's rightful interests and for its crusading nature.
But there are areas where there is a need for its further mature performance or playing a fuller role in upholding the public interest and enforcing the accountability of the government and institutions. The aim of this write-up has been just to put some focus on these issues.


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