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OP-ED: The power over truth

  • Published at 04:19 am May 20th, 2021
Rozina Islam
File photo: Prothom Alo Senior Reporter Rozina Islam was taken to the Kashimpur prison after a Dhaka court rejected police’s petition to remand her in an Official Secrets Act case by the Health Ministry on Monday, May 18, 2021 Focus Bangla

What Rozina Islam’s arrest reveals about our society

The arrest of the journalist Rozina Islam has brought a pressing issue at the surface. Many of her colleagues and academicians have pointed out the ways certain individuals, administrators, and institutions have misused state apparatuses against the benefit of the people. Similarly, those familiar with the pervasiveness of economic, political, or administrative power in our country are not even surprised with the Ministry of Health’s responses following the arrest of journalist Rozina Islam.

With their statements, they are trying to establish a narrative where Ms Islam did something gravely wrong. For example: Our health minister while talking to the journalists claimed Ms Islam was only barred from leaving the Secretariat before they could hand her over to the police. It is denied that Ms Islam was physically assaulted and rather she was accused of being violent. Most importantly, she is accused of stealing some sensitive documents from the desk. 

All these claims are the complete opposite of the statement of the victim -- the arrested journalist, as we have seen in many news reports. As a backdrop, we must also take note that in last April, she authored a few investigative reports on the activities of Health Ministry -- its mismanagement of funds, equipment, and corruption. 

None of the reports were challenged officially when these were published, rather, she was threatened by anonymous people. Now, we are presented with a situation where Ms Islam is arrested with an accusation of stealing top secret documents from the ministry. 

If we take the series of events into consideration, we find a tug of war between competing narratives. Many people -- professional journalists, citizen journalists, academicians, NGO personnel, civil societies, and so forth -- have found many loopholes in Covid-19 pandemic management, while some government officials and politicians were in denial of the fact and contrarily claimed a complete success in tackling the pandemic.

This tendency is not unique, but characteristic of the contemporary post-truth world where repeated assertion of certain statements is made ignoring factual rebuttals. As we all have experienced recently, facts and expert opinions have become secondary, rather, particular positioning of an individual determines what he/she will preach or believe. 

As such, traditional form of contestation and falsifying with facts have disappeared. Rather, mass dissemination of particular point of view is considered a pre-condition of truth-claims.

Therefore, refusing to attend the briefing of the Health Ministry officials was an important move by the journalist community. While the journalists were leaving the conference room, the ministry officials requested them to stay back and listen to their description of the events which would supposedly erase the confusion over the matter of Ms Islam’s arrest. Rather, I think, by not listening and disseminating their version has somehow prevented more confusion over the fact. Undoubtedly, journalist Rozina Islam was wrongfully detained and harassed.

There is no denying previously many journalists and news outlets might have picked and chose narratives because of their alliance with certain business houses or powerful individuals. In social media, many conspiracy theories flourish and news agencies play their part. We -- as individuals -- also tend to draw towards narratives that support our views or ideology. 

Our inclination towards particular “truths” is characteristic of what is sometimes termed as the “post-truth” era. The word “post-truth” has recently been included into the Oxford English dictionary and is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” There is no factual truth for us, we tend to believe anything till it “feels” right. 

With the advent of the internet, our life is flooded with opinions and viewpoints making it hard to make truth claims. Nonetheless, it has given immense power to the governments and business corporations who has greater access towards a truth-claim owing to their control over the communication channels. 

However, our tendency to believe what we see and hear is in no way a recent phenomenon. Rather, we are more likely to believe something than search for the “truth” ourselves. As such, Yuval Harari has claimed: “Humans have always lived in the age of post-truth.” We were able to conquer the world, defeating other animals due to our ability to “create and spread fictions” -- gave the basis of cooperation between distant people who believed the same “fiction.” 

Fiction is a powerful tool to keep the followers enchanted, and sometimes it diverts from truth to eliminate the risk of division. As long as we keep the fiction intact, we can stay powerful but as soon as we admit truth -- possibility of disunity becomes real. Harari claimed, all the powerful scholarly establishments of the world -- religious priests, communist ideologues, or the neoliberal capitalists -- placed unity above truth. Humans will always do the same -- seek more power than truth.

Nonetheless, there is something positive emanating from this unfortunate event, everyone is questioning the narrative of the ministry that claims to find journalist Rozina Islam wrong-footed. Rather, on social media, there is a surge in dissemination of the reports Ms Islam published earlier that unearthed irregularities and corruption. 

More people are being aware of the mismanagement of the Health Ministry, and possibly creating pathways so that a truth -- which may possibly unpack misconducts of public institutions -- shall reveal itself. 

We want justice for journalist Rozina Islam and many others who have been victimized for doing something that would benefit the people.

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he is working as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, The Netherlands.

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