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Archive for November, 2010

Two thousand five hundred years ago the small Greek city-state of Athens made a series of adjustments to its domestic political arrangements. The reforms of Kleisthenes, the Chief Archon in Athens in 525BC, which were a severely local response to protracted local difficulties, provided an impetus to an ideological breakthrough for the future course of political thoughts, a new system of government – Democracy. It is noteworthy that Kleisthenes’s democracy was more about dismantling the autocratic and suppressing practices of his previous tyrants and providing people with some degree of freedom when they had fewer expectations. Nevertheless, today’s standing of democratic ideas and concepts differ fundamentally. In present day’s definition, pluralist and elitist theories predict that democratic government will lead to better results for society than available alternatives (other form of governments). Accordingly, normative theories share the premise of people’s equal right to participate in the collective self-determination, whereas the egalitarian premise is very crucial. Yale University Professor Ian Shapiro illustrated the democratic ideas as follows: “they (people) expect to participate in making the collective decisions that govern them and that these decisions to be informed by extensive public deliberation. Besides, they expect those who lead public discussion and implement the collective will to be held accountable for their actions by the electorate…” With these all and many other attributes, the idea of liberal democracy gradually emerged. However, in reality, democracy so far failed to deliver as expected and it provides a cause for disappointments for the demos. Its participation is somehow fleeting, accountability is little more than nominal and the mechanisms for “democratic” decisions are obscure.

Despite the egalitarian structural distributive principle of democracy, the actual distribution of political power, however, depends on people’s political preferences as they act within the structure. To be self-governing, people require the capacity to form public opinion and then to have that public opinion influence and ultimately control public “will formation”- that is, government laws and policies. The media constitute a crucial sluice between public opinion building and state’s “will formation” (the term is coined by Jurgen Habermas’ in his book Between Facts and Norms). The mass media, like elections, serve to mediate between the public and the government, hence, in a democratic system, play a role of a Fourth Estate within the government structure (the other three estates are: the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary) as Edmund Burk historically put it: “there were Three Estates in Parliament; but in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all.”

Although the media in a democratic system is sometimes considered (often hyped) as the single-most vigilant actor in the vertical accountability mechanism, recent trends have given rise to some serious concerns as to media’s dubious role in many public interest issues. Media owners have to take much of this blame for this imbroglio. However, when developed countries are facing the ownership concentration issue, underdeveloped or developing countries are gradually being introduced with this new kind of phenomenon. Whatever the case is, it has seriously become a matter of concern which threatens the foundation of the very concept. Noam Chomsky, in his book Secret, Lies and Democracy, illustrated how media owners remotely control the news contents and stated that: “Investors don’t go down to the television studio and make sure that the local talk-show host or reporter is doing what they want. There are other, subtler, more complex mechanisms that make it fairly certain that the people on the air will do what the owners and investors want. … that propaganda system includes not just how issues are framed in news stories but also how they’re presented in entertainment programming — that huge area of the media that’s simply devoted to diverting people and making them more stupid and passive.” Thus media owners sometimes not only twist the facts and make people stupid, but also used to serve the vested and special interests of big corporations, corrupt bureaucrats and politicians, political extremists and fundamentalist groups. Hence, the irresponsible media usually consistently presents one-sided and inaccurate depictions of the political landscape through intimidations, deceits, biased reporting or unsubstantiated commentaries. Moreover, spectacular media images and stories, or as Douglas Kellner (in his book Media Spectacle and the Crisis of Democracy) terms it “media spectacle,” have also become important factors in swaying public opinion and national politics in the 21st century.

Bangladesh is as new a democracy as the country itself. However, since the very beginning of its independence, the commitment for democracy by its founder fathers has been enshrined in the newly orchestrated constitution. Nonetheless, it has experienced some hiccups in the political realm (some were ruthlessly brutal) compounded with a few military interventions which diverted the new-born country from its democratic path. Later, after nearly one and a half decade, it reinstalled the democratic system of government in the early 1990s.

Until recently, media ownership in Bangladesh was mainly handed on typical professional groups came largely from the journalistic background who understood and apprehended their role as social reformers and considered their efforts would pave the way for the nation building process. Thus, the sector was nearly intact from any big controversies. However, there was always an existence of more politically attached individuals whose primary objectives were to serve respective political interests and propagating their ideologies and agendas. Nevertheless, the situation started changing rapidly during the early part of 1990s with reemergence of democracy when a coterie of business people flocked into the parliament as its members while some of whom later discovered that only mere legislative power could not breed their purposes. Therefore, they endeavored to form an executive-legislative-media power nexus in which a person-elect could avail every option to exploit his business and personal interests whereby concerned authority and the common people would hardly dare to question any of his misdemeanors, power abuses, corruption and malpractices. Since then, we have experienced a surge of business people in the realm of media sector. May be a success of one lured many others. This is a new and threatening reality of our media realm, with which we have to learn to live or we must find a way out to rescue the Fourth Estate. Because, when the intention of a person becomes exploiting vested interests, hiding corruption with a propaganda machine, challenging and fearing the ruling authority and the administration not to meddle in his corrupt affairs, then the idea of the free press becomes a farce and has to face a serious backlash. The very freedom suddenly becomes a burden.

One such case of ownership crisis has been detected recently. A businessman-cum-politician Mr Mahmudur Rahman, who himself later voluntarily assumed the Editorship (acting) of a national daily by injecting hard cash was in question about his roles played during the editorship. His multiple interests were in direct clash with his responsibilities and obligations as an editor which to be in consistent with Fourth Estate principles. Many alleged that the editor (now detained and jailed) has deliberately blurred the line between subjectiveness and objectiveness in his biased reporting, forced reader to swallow which were sometimes a threat to religious harmony (by portraying, on a number of occasions, religious extremists as innocent madrasha people), national integrity (by creating xenophobia and spreading hatred against neighboring countries with tailoring divisions between nationalistic forces), and social stability. He also breached the gentlemen agreement by virtually taking side of the killers of Father of the Nation by publishing a series of stories justifying the killing when the killers were waiting to face guillotine. It was of utter frustration to many when he impliedly portrayed those killers as heroes by necessitating the killing spree at such a crucial time when apparently the whole nation was awaiting to take the long overdue burden off its shoulder. Unhesitatingly, for the sake of a healthy social environment, any society cannot but condemn this sort of obnoxious activities. Regarding media owners’ such kind of intentional ignorance to social concerns, the most important semi-official and policy-oriented study of the mass media in U.S. history, the Hutchins Commission Report, explicitely noted that- these owners did not provide adequately for the needs of the society, and that they sometimes engaged in practices that society condemns.

A remark from a renowned journalist and press critic A. J. Liebling could be more relevant in this context as she once opined that “Freedom of press is guaranteed only to those who own one”. Democracy allow us to enjoy a set of freedoms but it has also been tagged with a string of responsibilities. If we want a better government, it will be our purposive actions that will bring about the desired change as one must remember the popular maxim that “people deserve the government they have”. People have to share some responsibilities and obligations with the government to transform the change into a more meaningful and sustainable outcome. As much as they do so, the democracy worth more to them and, at the same time, the less people understand and apprehend their boundaries, the less liberal the democracy turns into. The two things are very much intertwined while one without another is simply risky and harmful for the society and obviously less sustainable.

*First appeared on E-Bangladesh.org, an online news forum, on November 10, 2010

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There are a series of incidents occurred in Bangladesh during the last couple of weeks. Among them, the incident in Pabna, the controversial remarks from the Health Advisor to Prime Minister and other few ministers, and bashing the media at Jatiya Sangsad by the ruling alliance are just a few to name. In Pabna, more than 100 ruling party activists on September 17 attacked two examination centers during a recruitment test of class-III government employees. A couple of days later, on 21st September, Prime Minister’s Health Advisor Dr Syed Modasser Ali ridiculed many with his own version of government recruitment policy at the Health Sector while addressing local people at Gopalganj Sadar Hospital. On the same day many ruling alliance MPs came down harsh on the press during a parliament session at the Jatiya Sangsad. A number of lawmakers including two ministers castigated some newspapers for publishing false and motivated reports defaming the Parliament and its members. All were happening in a row and it seems they are losing their nerves.

These few incidents unquestionably negated the ruling party’s pledge to establish good governance in the country. The crisis of governance once again comes at the forefront while the people responsible for delivering it are getting nonsense day by day. However, that would really be a wonderful thing if the people and the press of Bangladesh continue pressing for good governance issues for the coming months and years forgetting some other divisive issues. It will definitely push the ruling authority to change its direction, which, If not altered, will fade the hope for them of winning the next general election.

The paradox we are living in Bangladesh is that the countrymen are being left with two relative options in respect to choosing parties to govern them: the bad party-club and the worse party-club. Now, who support the bad one and who prefer the worse? Well, there is no straightforward answer to this. Allegedly, on the one hand, some people like to tag them as progressive, leftists or central-leftists or social democrats, religiously moderate, and argue for distinguishing the state and the religion apart, and their opinion is that the AL-club is no question a bad choice but, to them, they had only been left the worse one to pick. Simultaneously, people, who want religions to have more say in the state apparatus and prefer intermingling relations between state policy and religion, who are rightist or central-rightist or conservatives, say the vice-versa. To them, BNP-club is no wonder a bad one but the other one (AL-club) is, of course, worse. So, we are now being left with the problem to pick the supporters, well-wishers of the both clubs. But supporters of both clubs more or less agree that they are supporting the bad ones in absence of a better alternative. Noteworthily, apart from these differences, both clubs’ policy on economy, trade and commerce see no fundamental differences. Both clubs are willing to exploit the state power to feed their own party-men, relatives, and clients. Both like to manipulate tenders, resort to distortion and encroachment of government properties. Obviously, one resorts to these bad practices more recklessly than the other. But never mind, nobody can distinguish it. Who will try to do it with a risk of being tagged with a partisan seal? Apart from this, there are people who stand nowhere as it is pretty usual that some people always chose to watch and become victims and scapegoats of events and chronologies of history.

Needless to say, Bangladeshi politics are far more complex than any other countries. Huge population in such a small piece of land turns it next to impossible to govern. The dimensions of problems within the structure are unprecedented. It is quite easy to put a comment on the governability staying far away of the podium, but it is thousand times difficult to run and control the administration and other apparatuses in Bangladesh. The only fact is enough to portray the impossibility of governability of the country and that is the density of population. The country is ranked the top amongst all countries in the world and virtually second to none! (approx. 1000 people live in per Km2 in BD which is almost three times more than the second positioned country – India!). Therefore, the buzz words relating to good governance and political and social stability working better in the other parts of the world is irrelevant in our context. We can only try to invent a new unorthodox mechanism to make the impossible a possible.

The other factor is quite fundamental. If democracy is a rule of demos where majority will pick and chose some people to rule others, our democracy is absolutely in the right direction no matter what the purists claim or whatsoever. Please go to the BBS statistics. Nearly 40 percent of our people live under the poverty line, which means they are living a life on a dollar per day. It is almost half of the population to whom one single meal is more important than the rest of the world. If you go back to the previous election results, parties won consecutive elections only having mandate of less than 40 percent people (near past exception: 2008 election). To them, freedom of speech, movement, free press, freedom of assembly, religion, equality of opportunity, right to information etc. all are but buzz words. Although these civil rights carry a great weigh given the liberal democratic values and constitutionalism, it can hardly entertain a country where a meal a day is more important to the most of its populace. One can argue that only for such reason, these rogued political parties, who show little respect to these democratic principles, are enjoying such strong footing and leverages in Bangladesh.

Therefore, the gigantic tasks are to be performed by those aspirants who want Bangladesh to be truly democratic. Those are all very fundamental and one must address them before expecting a true nature of democracy flourishing in Bangladesh. These include: (1) Significantly reduce the birth rate (we need a negative growth rate for more than a couple of decades! However, clerics are not going to bow down so easily), (2) Allow massive economic activities without questioning certain level of corruption or procedural loopholes (We can allow ‘white corruption’, a system of impliedly allowing some specific types of grand corruption which allow corrupt money to be recycled and reinvested in the domestic economy. But of course we need to nearly stop the petty corruption which affects the daily lives of the common people. If we go on to bury both petty and grand corruption at a time, an economy like the Bangladesh one will come to a standstill and will go nowhere in near future. The last CTG tenure almost proved that obvious.), (3) Reform the education system drastically (which is underway), (4) Don’t allow fewer people (military) to rule the most rather stick to the principle that majority rule the others (however, don’t question if the majority party give jobs to their clients, you know the spill over effects) (we are in there now), (5) Engage the purists and elitists in street and grassroots politics so that they understand the needs and necessities of the society (which is mostly food, food, and then security) without being utopian (reminiscing the western life-style they once used to live in) and stop sermon the nation which, in Bangladesh’s perspective, can never (too harsh?) be achieved, (6) Restructure the higher education system at par with the society’s demands, engage them in empirical researches to feed the social needs, (7) Draw a rein on reckless and irresponsible media houses (by activating press council?) to stop blackmailing people and confuse the public opinion. (so that Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Americans, Bhutanese (!), Nepalese (!), Industrialists, Corrupt politicians-bureaucrats-businessmen cannot buy the journalists to write, report or propagate in their favor or espionage for themselves!), (8) Change the mindset of the administration people that they are the servant of the state and the executive not the rulers, also upside down the whole corrupt nature of the Judiciary to transform it into the last resort of the common people (9) Transfer key decision making powers to the local elected representatives (no to UNO, no to DC; yes to Upazilla Parishad Chairman, and yes to Zilla Parishad Chairman, having recognized the fact that these elected people can go too far (Pabna incident), yet it is hundred times better than a ‘king DC’), and last, but not the least, (10) A second chamber in the House to allow those purists and elitists to have an access to power and to learn and understand that how easy it is to bash the politicians from staying safe and untouched and how difficult it is to run a country like Bangladesh! A long exhaustive list indeed, but it doesn’t end here. Question must be asked: how did I prioritize and chose these 10 points when the problems are more acute and pervasive? Here, everyone has to remember that purposive sampling can have its many downsides, but it also can be a good one comparing the other mediocre methods.

So, all these are possible now? Or, do we need (or prefer) a benevolent dictator to implement those?! (even if we say yes, s/he must emerge from a sturdy political process and, of course, not chosen by any big brothers (foreign) or small brothers (cantonment))

Floor is open to the purists and elitists…

*First appeared on E-Bangladesh.org, an online news forum, on October 03, 2010

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