THE parliament has sought the arrest and trial of Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam, egged on by the words of Sajib Joy, the prime minister’s son. Joy’s position is understandable, as he is talking about his mother and his emotional reaction is to be expected. However, passing off DGFI reports without verification is poor and unethical journalism, but not treason. At no moment does it merit arrest or a ban on the paper. In that case, one should investigate the role of the politicians during that period, including those affected by the RATS (Razzaque, Amu, Tofail and Suranjit) syndrome that infected all the parties. They are trying to make a scapegoat of Mahfuz Anam while letting themselves go free.
Journalistic failings can be serious when it involves politics. But Mahfuz Anam committed no crime. While admitting his mistake, he also agreed that it was a bad decision and as one of the most influential editors, his act had huge impact. That the journalist serves his nation best by doing his job best without fear or favour including the patriotic variety of politics is rarely understood. This is how things start going wrong in the first place any way.
How many politicians have ever confessed to doing something wrong? Mahfuz Anam did though that only means even the best fail as did many of his editor comrades-in-arms. Bullying the media is easy when politicians are used to not being accountable for their acts. Just as using media for political gains is bad, MPs screaming in the parliament for the Star editor’s arrest is also bad but then seeking media transparency is not a good idea for anyone with things to hide.
MAHFUZ Anam has shown courage in admitting that he passed on DGFI generated info without checking. But most newspapers carried the same info and none have ever said anything on it. Mahfuz Anam actually discussed the matter in a very relaxed manner on ATN News anchored by Munni Shaha. I think he misunderstood the potential impact of his words. What Mahfuz Anam did was done by most editors who are silent now, due to one reason or other, mostly safety. Such transactions continue to happen even now and will go on given the opaque nature of governance we have here. Editors need to be much more careful than others because they carry the burden of public trust.
BUT what makes the Mahfuz Anam’s confession more serious than poaching information from a source is its role in politics. The DGFI and other agencies including the police have been supplying such news for long and that is their job. It increases their influence on media outlets, helps them make friends, and use media for their own purpose which includes providing misinformation. It is the responsibility of the media outlet not to fall into the trap because unlike the spooks and the police they are not paid servants of the government. They are providers of information to the people who pay for it. They cannot take sides particularly political ones because it is not just unethical but a violation of the contract between the supplier of news and the consumers of the news. If producing fake food can lead to jail, fake money to the gallows, etc, why supplying fake news should be treated as something different, particularly when fake news on the alleged crime of a national leader is published which can impact the entire governing system of the country, however bad that system may be?
JOURNALISM and politics are so close that it is difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. Journalists are always hovering around politicians and it is encouraged because that closeness means access to exclusive stories. However, there is a steep price attached to it and for some this can be readily forgotten. The most important one is that of bias. We think that being biased is not wrong if the cause is right. This attitude has damaged media more than anything else because it blurs the distinction between what is ethical and what is not. This is a thin grey line and that is why stepping carefully is important. When the Daily Star was set up by SM Ali, deals were not necessary but as Star’s clout grew, the temptation to play a role in politics must have grown too. And ‘mistakes’ were made. No admission can change that. But Star was not the only one, most did it.
BANGLADESH is run by the upper class and Mahfuz Anam represents the best of the upper class. He is from the owning class and as such must take responsibility for what his paper does. However, there are many other owners and editors who are always in the news for their many economic crimes and they are regularly reported upon but nothing happens. The issue is structural as the kind of hyper wealth required to invest in losing concerns like media is possible only by making money through deals with the government. And when such deals are made, media freedom is automatically reduced. What makes the Transcom Group story different is that, it is the most professional media group in town and the owners and editors did not reach the successful point through the process as most others did. They were from the very beginning freer than almost any other media outlet. Which is why being forced to act under pressure seems unlikely.
NURUL Kabir of New Age did not bow down to pressure and Iqbal Sobhan Chowdhury of the Observer now claims he did not. If others could resists, why not Star and the rest? This question will not go away. Those who believed that the military-led regime could do what civilian politicians had failed to in the last few decades since 1972 cannot be called smart. That Professor Yunus could deliver micro credit but delivering governance is a whole new ball game. Yunus flopped spectacularly and it is in this flop lies the big lesson. To each what one does best and do not convince yourself that you alone know best. Journalists are good for journalism, not politics. When the two mix, something is lost for both.
Afsan Chowdhury is a journalist and researcher