Tuesday, November 20, 2012

On Ministerial gaffes and governance

 "As I See It" column
The Independent
November 17, 2012
M. Serajul Islam


Right to information about what the government does is now accepted as a right of a citizen worldwide. For the media whose duty it is to find out what the government does and write about it or report on it on a continuous basis, the right to information is not just a basic right but a very important one; its professional bed and butter. Ultimately the public is the sovereign in a democratic state and it is the media that is one of the watchdogs on its behalf to help it exercise that sovereign right and restrain the government from becoming arbitrary or dictatorial. In a country such as Bangladesh where the mainstream parties have rendered the main watchdog of the people namely the parliament innocuous, the media’s role is a bigger one for assuring citizen’s right to information about government and governance. 

In a way, Bangladesh gives the façade of the most democratic government in the world when it comes to the government’s eagerness to give information to the media  Thanks to the 25 plus private TV channels and the unbelievably large number of daily newspapers, Dhaka is flooded by a over subscription of media people pursuing the government for information.

The government represented by the Ministers is equally game to talk to the media and freely, no doubt giving the impression to an outsider that the country is a light of democracy and a haven for the media in pursuit of information as a watchdog for the people. Under this government that has helped achieve an explosion of the private TV channels; the propensity of the Ministers to talk to the media however has crossed all limits and has become counterproductive. Like movie stars, our Ministers are always prepared to talk to the media as if they are running the government under media glare. Like the film stars, they perhaps feel if they have no media exposure, they have no political career.  

Unfortunately, many of them in their over enthusiasm are committing gaffes galore that are now raising serious questions about the government’s credibility. Therefore, the question to ask now is whether this interaction of the Ministers with the media is helping the citizen’s right to information or the government in running the country in a transparent and democratic way. There are serious doubts that either is being achieved. Take for instance the first case, whether the free interaction of the ministers with the media is in anyway helping the people’s right to information. In recent times, people of the country have scratched their heads for information relating to the exchanges between the Government and the World Bank on the issue of the Padma Bridge.  

We have a Minister of Finance who among the Ministers is the most media friendly. Yet the media was unsuccessful to get from him any information about the letters the World Bank had written to him and his Ministry on the Padma Bridge. The World Bank through its Dhaka Office had stated in the media very clearly about its sacrosanct policy of not releasing any information to the media about exchanges between it and a sovereign country on ground of confidentiality. The Bank had nevertheless said if the Bangladesh Government wished, it could go ahead and release the letters in the media. 

The Finance Minister ignored the Bank’s suggestion and the media was unable to encourage him to release the letters for information of the public.  The same Minister however never failed in the past to talk on other issues in which the public was interested and also on issues that the public felt would have been better for the Minister and the Government if he had kept to himself. His comments on the share market were ones that did not make him very popular with the public; it did not also help the Government either in terms of its popularity or credibility. 

The Minister’s latest over indulgence with the media, particularly the electronic media has now landed him and the government with a gaffe of very serious nature and an extremely embarrassing one. The Minister in one of his regular and instant media appearances under glare of the TV cameras was heard saying:  “Prof Amartya said that so many good things are happening in this country but they are not projected anywhere in the world only because of Prof Yunus." When a surprised media asked him how an individual could carry out such a successful campaign on an international platform against his own country, the Minister was quick to respond that Dr. Yunus has“wonderful publicity machinery!” 

Millions who watched the Minister on TV making the statement were bewildered and confounded. Many thought that even if Dr. Sen made the comment, why on earth would the Minister embarrass him in public? Dr. Amartya Sen however put the record straight. In a written statement to a leading English Daily of Dhaka, he expressed astonishment that “the alleged utterance is not close to anything I told Muhit when we met briefly at the VIP lounge in the Bangkok Airport last month.”  He went on to state : “Rather, I was pointing to the fact that the treatment of Yunus -- and its interpretation in the outside world -- have been strongly inhibiting factors working against the justified acclaim that Bangladesh's stellar achievements could otherwise be expected to get in the world.”

In a strange twist to the tale thereafter, the Finance Minister told the media that “Amartya Sen did not make any such comment about Prof Yunus. It was my comment."  The English Daily to which Dr. Sen sent his statement quickly put on the internet the video clipping of the Finance Minister telling TV journalists what he later denied! Unfortunately, the Minister’s denial was also ill advised because Dr. Sen had made a very positive comment to him about Dr. Yunus that he misrepresented that many in the country and outside will interpret as part of the government’s policy to humiliate Dr. Yunus. The incident has seriously dented the Minister’s standing. It also flagged a serious problem of this government that it refuses to acknowledge. It allowed its Ministers a free hand to talk to the media from the very first day it came to power. As a consequence, there is perhaps not one Minister who has not embarrassed himself/herself and the government in the process.

The Finance Minister’s latest gaffe has unequivocally highlighted the grave dangers of appearing before the media unprepared. It serves nobody’s interests. In this instance as in many instances before, our Minister’s have committed gaffes in the media because they appeared before it unprepared and where there was no need for them even to appear. Such indulgence of Ministers with the media has also not served the interests of the people who are not interested in the Ministers speaking in the media just for the sake of speaking.  It is time therefore for the Government to draw a line and send out instructions to the Ministers that they should refrain from appearing unprepared before the media. In the face of the Government’s silence, it was an ex-Minister of the ruling party who appeared in the media and asked the Finance Minister to shut up which again was a strange example of governance!

It is high time to revert to the old system when Ministers spoke to the media through a Spokesman  and appeared personally before it only when the issue demanded his/her presence and with due preparation. Such is the system everywhere. It is in Bangladesh only that the Ministers interact with the media the way they do and end up embarrassing themselves, the government and in case of the Finance Minister’s strange gaffe over Dr. Sen, the country as well. Not too long ago, the Finance Minister faced censure in a Cabinet meeting from two of his senior colleagues over his indulgence with the media that led him to threaten to resign. A serious situation was calmed when the Prime Minister intervened but it seems the Finance Minister did not take the message from his colleagues seriously.   

The writer is a former career Ambassador and retired Secretary.




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