Friday, December 31, 2010

On newspaper editorials and commentaries

Published in The Independent
January 1st , 2011
M. Serajul Islam

There is something unique that most newspaper editors do in Bangladesh. They frequently write columns that they call a commentary in which they raise issues that they consider are of national importance. In these commentaries, they often hold what could in plain words be described as a trial of top political leaders, often even the Prime Minister, raising questions that they think they have a duty to do this. Often, the assumptions on which they ask such questions are subjective and politically biased. I wonder what purpose these commentaries serve as the political leaders to whom they are directed pay no heed. However, there is little to wonder that these commentaries allow the editors to satisfy their egos for they just not only ask questions in their commentaries to the top political leadership; they deliver judgments too. In fact, the editors aside, there are none in the country who have such awe inspiring powers except when they care to take on the judges!

Newspapers outside Bangladesh perform this function that our newspapers do through commentaries simply with their editorial; but seldom as overtly as our newspapers and editors do in their commentaries. The editorial is an important part of a newspaper, in fact it is the most important one that makes or breaks a newspaper and is never taken lightly. In the editorial, the editor brings his experience not just to express opinions on issues of national and international importance; sometimes such opinions even set the political direction of the country. The editor has what is universal everywhere; a column of his own to bring such opinions before the politicians and the nation. The editorial does not merely tell the reader about the ability of the editor; it really sets the standard of a newspaper. The editorial is often the product of an editorial board that most newspapers have to make its quality and content beyond reproach.
Editorials are not sermons. The better editorials are focused, crisp and as objective as one can get. Editorials are supposed to be short so that it can hold the reader’s interest. Whether a daily is worth the paper on which it is printed is easily assessed by the readers’ interest in reading the editorial as an indispensible part of what he/she reads when he/she holds the paper. The credibility of a daily is also determined by the importance the government gives to what is said about its policies in the editorials.

In Bangladesh, editorials have not evolved in the way it has in other countries. Rarely has any newspaper in Bangladesh been able to reach that level of credibility where its editorial has left the government with no alternative but to accept the message in it and act according to it. Nor have newspapers been able to place a government in a predicament where it could ignore the message in the editorial at a political price. Our editorials have not reached that level of credibility or acceptability.

Editorials reach credibility and acceptability on the strength of their ability to influence and motivate the public. Our newspaper editorials have failed to achieve this either because editorials have generally taken political lines, which is generally not a negative factor. Unfortunately, in the context of Bangladesh’s politics, political lines in editorials end by dividing the people and hence losing credibility. The two years of Emergency have further diminished the acceptance of the editorials to the public. A number of leading newspapers that had acquired or were beginning to acquire the sort of acceptance that newspapers of merit have in many of the world’s capitals were caught with their pants down backing the Emergency.

These newspapers made the mistake that a newspaper should not make. The newspapers got interested in playing politics. They crossed the fine line between suggesting to the political leadership what is good for the country to getting involved in politics and forcing the changes themselves. They got interested in protecting the so-called Third Force and in the end what they achieved was the company and friendship of corrupt and anti-democratic elements of the society. It would take these newspapers a long time before they can regain the credibility in their editorials.

It does not seem like the newspapers of Bangladesh are going about the way to regain public confidence as newspapers do elsewhere. They still seem not interested to assist politics but to guide and control it. They still continue to indulge in partisan politics. It is their abiding interest to play politics that has encouraged newspapers to add a commentary to supplement in more details what they believe they cannot do through the editorial. With the commentary, a newspaper editor raises himself to the level of the political leadership and then holds court and delivers a verdict! These commentaries are often lengthy pieces where most of what is written is subjective and ends up annoying those for whom it is meant. In the end such commentaries reflect the anger and frustration of the editor but fail to move the political leadership towards listening to what the commentaries try to say, suggest and demand. Often editors write these commentaries from a misplaced sense of importance by placing themselves at par and often above the elected leaders.

Newspapers play a major role everywhere in shaping democracy by being a conduit between the public and the government. The role is a pro-active and positive one. Unfortunately, because of the history of our politics, newspapers have played a role of conflict with the government at times of extra-constitutional governments. The papers failed to adjust to the elected governments that they treated and continue to treat as they had treated the unelected governments. The newspapers also failed to build with the political leadership the element of trust and respect for which the political leadership too must take part of the blame.

As a consequence, our newspapers have lost a lot of their potential as an instrument of democracy. It is time that they make conscious efforts on their part to earn the trust of the political leadership and the people. They could do so by giving up their commentaries and concentrating on editorials. Commentaries are provocative or at least that is the way the political leaderships view them. There are a lot of people who also see the commentaries as subjective writings meant to accuse or embarrass the government. What the newspapers write in the commentaries would be better served if written in editorials because editorials are an integral part of a newspaper designed precisely to serve just such a purpose. A good newspaper or a good editor does not need a commentary to supplement their efforts. A good editorial can serve the purpose adequately provided the paper has earned the credibility and the editor, the capability.

The writer is a former ambassador to Japan and Egypt

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Our Expatriates and Politics: The case in USA

Published in The Daily Sun
M. Serajul Islam

The Awami League supporters gathered in the Kennedy Airport in New York to welcome Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during her recent visit to New York. Things went out of hand as the Awami Leaguers broke into groups and there was altercation between them that caused quite a deal of embarrassment. Our expatriates ended up giving a bad impression about the country to the hosts.

It is a very heartening matter that our expatriates show enthusiasm in receiving our Prime Ministers or Ministers on their overseas visits. However what is not so heartening is the partisanship in the way they show their enthusiasm in receiving these political leaders. In 2005, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia was on an official visit to Japan. On that visit, s a historic event took place. In the heart of Tokyo, the local authorities offered Bangladesh a place for a permanent Shahid Manner that then Prime Minister Khaleda Zia inaugurated. This was a major concession made by the Japanese who are not accustomed to such an overture to a foreign culture. For Bangladesh, this was recognition of its language because this gave it the opportunity to inscribe in the heart of Tokyo, the story of the glorious Language Movement.

Unfortunately, the supporters of the Awami League did not see it that way. They made attempts of a black flag demonstration to spoil the occasion on the plea that the BNP was hobnobbing with Islamic fundamentalists and for a series of other alleged misdeeds in governance. It was with great efforts that the black flag demonstration was avoided with the help of the Japanese security. The BNP expatriates are also equally capable of doing what the AL expatriates had attempted during the visit of Khaleda Zia.

The nation owes great debt to our expatriates for their contribution to the national economy through remittance. That notwithstanding, the expatriates also do something that expatriates from other nations do not do. They establish branches of the parties in Bangladesh in their adopted countries. They also bring the conflicts and partisanship of these political politics and keep themselves divided just as the political parties at home keep the nation divided.

Thus there are branches of the AL, the BNP and the other smaller parties in every country to which Bangladeshis have migrated. In countries like the USA and UK, the mainstream parties have their branches in the cities where Bangladeshis live in a large number. The Bangladeshi private TV channels that can be viewed in the USA often carry advertisements from parties and candidates seeking support to get elected to the committees of these overseas branches of the political parties of Bangladesh. There are also other types of associations of Bangladeshi expatriates and in New York alone there are over 100 associations representing just not the political parties but districts and thanas reflecting the narrow parochialism of the community. The expatriates of other countries do not show even the hint of the division and disunity that the Bangladeshi community does. They are united for common benefit and also to unitedly represent their country. The Bangladesh community is divided on political and narrow self interests and in the process fail to make the impact that other expatriate communities achieve in the USA.

There was discussion during the Caretaker Government to ban the political parties from having overseas branches. The question of banning is a redundant one. These overseas branches need no formal sanction from the mainstream parties for opening overseas branches. These overseas branches however have to get approval of local authorities to function that control their activities. The call for banning these overseas branches nevertheless resonated in the minds of many in the country for a different reason. Many felt that by organizing as branches of parties in Bangladesh, Bangladeshi expatriates just assist in washing the dirty linen of Bangladesh’s politics abroad and thus enhances the negative image from which the country suffers.

Bangladeshis in the United States in the last two decades have increased in a substantial way. There is no reliable statistics on how many Bangladeshis live in the United States. It could be well in excess of a quarter million. Wikipedia mentions that between 1990 and 2000, the Bangladesh community was the fastest growing one in the US. It has now reached a position in cities such as New York, LA, Chicago, Greater Washington, Atlanta, Miami, Houston and Dallas where by their numbers they can act as a lobby to influence the country’s policies in areas of interest to Bangladesh. This year, a politician of Bangladeshi origin Hansen Clarke has been elected as a Member of Congress from Michigan.

Unfortunately, the achievement of the Bangladeshi Congressman seems to be a surprising exception as most Bangladeshis who can lead the community dissipate their energy in fighting the partisan politics of Bangladesh in the USA. The Federation of Bangladesh Associations of North America (FOBANA) that could have emerged as an apex organization of Bangladeshis in the USA for achieving not just social and cultural needs of the Bangladeshi community but also as an organization of political strength has now broken into a few splinter groups. Although the groups do not accept that they have been divided on politics of the country, there is enough reason to believe politics to a large extent as well as personalities have created the splinters.

The mainstream parties really do not gain anything through these branches established in their names. The branches gain even less in such a connection. Yet for some strange reasons, they keep the connection and as a consequence, the expatriates keep themselves divided as the nation keeps itself is divided at home. One reason why our expatriates love organizing themselves in line with politics at home is because they have been involved in politics as students or in their professional lives as activists of one or the other of the political parties before they migrated. By force of habbit, they do the same in the States. The fact that none of them would ever come home to do politics makes this attitude of the expatriates so hard to understand.

It is time that the Bangladeshis take a look at what other expatriate communities do and achieve in the USA. The Indians for instance organize themselves in the USA for furthering their social, economic, cultural and political lives in the USA. They do not try to get involved with politics in India that they leave to those in the country. They nevertheless love their country as much as Bangladeshis in the USA love theirs; most importantly their Indian identity. When it comes to furthering India’s interests in the USA, they thus have no problem in backing to the hilt the Government in power and in return, act as a powerful lobby for furthering India’s interest. All other expatriate communities in USA do the same because that is the logical thing to do. Unfortunately, in case of Bangladeshis in the USA, the community remains divided on politics of Bangladesh and have seldom been united in making Bangladesh’s interests a common cause with the power structure in the USA.

It is time for the expatriates of Bangladesh to unite. That will allow them not just to serve the interests of the community in USA but also help build a positive image for the country. They could even do better. They could create pressure on the politicians in Bangladesh given the love they have so clearly demonstrated for the motherland to end the “politics of hatred”, to take a quote out of the damning coverage by The Economist in its issue on 18th November, that is destroying Bangladesh. The expatriates in USA have the potential given the talent they have to send such a message but only if they unite and rise above politics.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Nation Fails to Defend an Icon

Published in The Independent, December 18th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The controversy created in the country involving the name of Dr. Mohammad Yunus was unfortunate. It was unbelievable that the media and politicians reacted to the documentary shown in Norway without verifying the facts with official sources in Norway or the Norwegian Embassy in Dhaka. Their reaction suggested that they were more eager to believe in the story than to check facts.

The documentary in question is “Caught in Micro-credit” that was aired on Norwegian National Television, NRK. It charged Grameen Bank of violating the terms of an agreement signed in 1994 by transferring US$ 100 million given to it by Government of Norway to Grameen Kalyan, a subsidiary of GB. The money was meant for being given out as micro credit and Grameen Kalyan has nothing to do with micro credit. Although the money was transferred back to GB, questions were raised over it by the Norwegian Embassy of Dhaka. After protracted exchanges, the Norwegian Embassy was finally satisfied in 1998 and settled the matter in favour of GB

It was open season in a section of the press and in the community on Dr. Yunus as soon as news of the documentary reached Dhaka. It was taken out of context and sensational headlines such as “embezzlement”, “siphoning “ of millions of dollars, etc were liberally used to give readers the impression that the Noble Laureate had misappropriated the money and that he should go to jail for it although in the facts that they revealed, there was little to substantiate such a serious accusation.

The Prime Minister stepped into the controversy early. She asked for an inquiry that was fair enough. In seeking the investigation, the Prime Minister’s choice of words was subjective and uncomplimentary. Dr. Yunus who was out of the country when the controversy exploded instantly welcomed the call. The matter should have rested there. Instead, the Foreign Minister pitched in with her own spin, stressing that the image of the country did not depend on the image of an individual.

In politics, patience is a virtue. One wished that the political leaders had shown this virtue. If they had, they would have saved themselves the embarrassment because the Norwegian Government later unequivocally cleared Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank of any wrongdoing. The country’s Minister for Environment and Development Erik Solheim underscored this in a statement issued after the press reports in Dhaka that said ” there is no indication that Norwegian funds have been used for unintended purposes, or that Grameen Bank has engaged in corrupt practices or embezzled funds. The matter was concluded when the agreement concerning reimbursement of the funds was entered into in May 1998 under the government in office at the time."

The statement of the Norwegian Minister and facts that have become known since have shown that a section of the media played a deplorable role. First, they treated the allegations as true without checking facts about a Noble Laureate who has done so much for the country’s image. Second, they left little doubt that they were happy that something like the Norwegian documentary fell into their hands. Third, they did not consider even the need to contact the Noble Laureate before declaring him guilty as accused. Fourth, they used motivated headlines to mislead readers. Finally, they even created a few “original” stories of their own to “help” substantiate the allegations of the documentary like involving the Indian Prime Minister as criticizing Dr. Yunus leading the Indian High Commission in Dhaka to trash it.

The Foreign Minister’s negative spin to the story was surprising. She said in the media that an individual’s image cannot affect the image of the country. There is a little problem in accepting this argument because Dr. Yunus cannot be dismissed as just any individual. For Bangladesh, he is an icon; an individual larger than life. In fact, when Dr. Yunus won the Noble Prize in 2006, people felt the same pride for him as they felt about the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman during the war of liberation. Since winning the Noble Prize, Dr. Yunus has won many more international awards that have enhanced the image of Bangladesh. To dismiss him as individual whose reputation is not worth fighting for is surely is unacceptable to many in the country and abroad.

Hindsight is not always a fair way to judge people or events. In case of Dr. Yunus however people who jumped to believe the Norwegian documentary should have spared a moment to consider the impeccable credentials that the Noble Laureate has established for honesty and integrity. If they had done so, they would have thought twice before expressing their views.

Dr. Yunus has put Bangladesh positively on the world map long before he won the Noble Prize with the concept of Grameen Bank. During the 1991 Presidential campaign, then candidate Bill Clinton said in one of his campaign speeches that Dr. Yunus deserved the Noble Prize for the revolution he brought about with his concept of Grameen Bank and that if elected President, he would replicate the Grameen Bank model in some of the big cities of USA to deal with poverty. Since winning the Noble Prize, he has amongst his friends some of the most powerful men and women in contemporary history. He was a member of Global Elders, an international group announced in 2007 by Nelson Mandela on his 89th birthday “to support peace building, help address major causes of human suffering and promote the shared interests of humanity.” His name, reputation and awards he won are today the best products for helping Bangladesh’s poor image abroad.

It is indeed unfortunate that we did not defend his image against a slipshod documentary that deliberately misled viewers by failing to tell them that the allegation brought against him was settled in favour of Dr. Yunus and the Grameen Bank more than a decade ago. . Any other nation with an icon such as Dr. Yunus would have cried foul against the Norwegian documentary and demanded legal action against the producers of the documentary. Unbelievably, we declared him guilty without even an investigation or a chance to him to defend himself and even wanted to send him to jail!

The controversy has however brought to the surface the fact that there are many in the country not happy with him. The reasons for this are difficult to fathom except if one would like to conjecture. Perhaps by his Noble Prize winning feat, Dr. Yunus has made many unhappy. Perhaps, those who went after him believe that he is not with them politically. There are of course many who disagree with micro-credit for a variety of reason and they may have jumped into the fray to discredit him for the Noble Laureate is truly the “Father of Microcredit”. Nevertheless the unfortunate reaction in favour of the Norwegian documentary by groups in Bangladesh and their eagerness to declare Dr. Yunus guilty without checking facts or allowing him the right of defense raises serious questions about us as a nation.

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt and a Director, Centre for Foreign Affairs Studies.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Human Rights Watch Report on Border Killings

The Daily Sun, December 26th., 2010
M. Serajul Islam

The issue of killings of Bangladeshis on Bangladesh-India border by the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) has been a thorny one that has not been resolved satisfactorily. It has the potential to derail the positive steps that the two countries have taken in the last 2 years for a paradigm shift in their bilateral relations, given the emotional nature of the issue.

Bangladesh has protested these killings at various levels but without success. In the last decade, at least 1000 Bangladeshis have died at the hands of the BSF. The number alone underscores the seriousness of the issue. The reported cases of abuse and torture at the hands of the BSF have further complicated the issue of killings of Bangladeshis in the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Recently Human Rights Watch, one of world’s leading independent organisation dedicated to the protection of human rights, has published an 81 pages Report on the border killings/torture/abuse suffered by Bangladeshis (together with Indians) on the 2000 km border between Bangladesh and Indian province of West Bengal and the role of the BSF. The Report has documented indisputable evidence about BSF’s wrong doings and has shown that the problem is not really going to be resolved soon. The Report has been based on interviews with the families of the victims and in case of those abused/tortured, with the victims themselves. BSF officials and human rights groups in India and Bangladesh were also interviewed together with BDR officials.

The findings are grim. It has shown that the victims have been killed while involved in smuggling or cattle hustling or just being with those involved with those nefarious activities. It concluded that the relationship between the alleged crime and punishment was utterly disproportional and that in many cases, the victims were shot dead while fleeing. Some victims had been tortured to death simply on suspicion of being involved in smuggling. Children who were used by the smugglers to avoid detection had also been killed summarily.

There was almost no accountability in bringing the BSF personnel involved to justice and even the palpably evident cases of arbitrary killings had gone unpunished. The Report found the abuses and violation of human rights by the BSF acceptable to the Indian Government. The Indian Government argued that the BSF shootings had been necessary to check smuggling, mass migration of Bangladeshis and terrorists using Banagladesh as sanctuary to cross into India for terrorist attacks. The Report found that few of those killed had terrorist connections. Mass migration of Bangladesh was also an unacceptable excuse because India had fenced 3,200 km of the border. Smuggling was also not a good excuse to justify the killings because of fencing unless the BSF had connived and later, deals with smugglers had gone wrong.

The Report showed that Indian laws stood in the way to bring the “trigger happy” BSF personnel to bear responsibility for their acts. It also shed light to the fact that many of the BSF personnel involved in unlawful acts had gone to the Bangladesh-India border after a stint in Kashmir where security forces had been accused by both local and foreign human rights organizations of human rights violations.

The recommendations of the Report also pointed an accusing finger at BSF. It called upon the Indian Government to assure that the BSF followed UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms Law enforcement officials. It also recommended that the BSF officials accused of killing and abuses should be investigated by civilian courts as the BSF had failed to deliver justice in trying such cases. It also asked for an independent commission to try serious cases of violation of human rights by the BSF. The Report also called upon the Indian Government to remove all legal obstacles that provide immunity to BSF officials from prosecution. The Report called upon India and Bangladesh to accede to the request of the UN Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions to visit India, pending since 2000 and Bangladesh, pending since 2006, to inquire and document the killings in the hands of the BSF. The Report also recommended that BSF officials accused of wrong doings should be barred from serving as UN Peace Keepers.

The Human Rights Watch Report has thus upheld a widely held view in Bangladesh that innocent Bangladeshis are killed, tortured and abused by BSF. The defense by the Indian side that the Bangladeshis deserved to die because they were caught at a place where they were not supposed to be legally is unacceptable because those killed could have been apprehended as they were unarmed. The abuse and torture of Bangladeshis by the BSF manifested an anti-Bangladeshi mindset as well. These findings have come at a time when Bangladesh and India are involved in making a paradigm shift in their bilateral relations and hence could be provocative.

The first thing that the AL Government did upon assuming power was to assure the Indian government that its soil would not be used for terrorist attacks against India. Before Sheikh Hasina visited India in January this year, Bangladesh handed to India top ULFA terrorists for which a grateful Indian media urged its government to settle Bangladesh’s concerns in bilateral relations with India immediately. Bangladesh’s major demands like sharing of waters of the common rivers; a fair demarcation of the maritime boundary or a better deal in trade that is heavily weighed in favour of India have not yet been addressed by India.

The only offers that India has made to Bangladesh are a US$ 1 billion loan on soft terms for the communication sector and a promise to sell electricity. So far, a little over US$ 600 million of the amount has been earmarked for 14 communications related projects mainly linking mainland India with its Northeast provinces through Bangladesh. The opposition in Bangladesh has called the soft loan an Indian ploy to get from Bangladesh another of its important needs, namely the land transit that in the past Bangladeshi negotiators had considered as their only card against India.

The window of opportunity for a paradigm shift in Bangladesh-India relations that Bangladesh officials have so enthusiastically drummed up will wither away unless India quickly concedes on Bangladesh’s major claims. A great deal will therefore depend on what the Indian Prime Minister has to offer when he comes on a visit to Bangladesh expected to take place early next year. The Report of the Human Rights Watch with all the negative manifestations will add extra pressure on India to relent. The ball is now in India’s court and unless India concedes, the agitation of the opposition against India will begin to gain momentum.

Writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and a Director, Center for Foreign Affairs Studies.