Friday, June 14, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Bangladesh in the Western media

Now that the country prepares for a new general election, a naive observation of Bangladesh’s political realities happens to underpin Western journalism

Update : 09 Nov 2023, 09:33 AM

Whenever there is any mention of Bangladesh in the Western media, I take interest, like many others, in what there is in the report about my country. I will confess that all too often, I am disappointed at the clear lack of adequate information about the country, indeed about its history that is spotted in such reports or comments.

Take this statement, one bandied about for years in the Western media. The simplistic conclusion about 1971 is that it was a civil war which led the Bengalis into becoming an independent nation. Nowhere is it mentioned that what occurred in 1971 was a war between two states, in this instance Bangladesh and Pakistan, since with the declaration of Bangladesh’s independence by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 26, the country acquired independent status. In effect, it was a matter of two states waging battle against each other.

The media in the West has kept missing this point. The new issue of TIME magazine, with its cover story on Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, has referred to the 1971 conflict as a civil war. Which reminds one of some other missing factors in Western reporting on Bangladesh. Back in the late 1990s, a leading weekly journal in the United Kingdom referred to Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia as the widows of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and General Ziaur Rahman, in that order. My letter asking the management of the journal for a correction was of course duly published.

One expects journalists to be fully conversant with history. But when media reports in the West go on referring to Bangabandhu as Bangladesh’s first president (which is true) but have clearly not done proper research on his role as the founder of the country, one tends to get a trifle worried about such journalism. 

Again, now that the country prepares for a new general election, a naive observation of Bangladesh’s political realities happens to underpin western journalism. Politics in Dhaka is looked at from the prism of dynastic rivalry between the two leading political parties. That there is something deeper, something of a profound ideological divide between the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, is missed or ignored.

In the issue of TIME, the report speaks of Ziaur Rahman’s having led the country between the assassination of Bangabandhu in 1975 and his own in 1981. No mention is there of the Khondokar Moshtaq period between August 15 and November 5, of the assassination of four national leaders in prison in early November. It is a misleading picture of Bangladesh’s traumatic politics in that year of trouble. 

More of a surprise comes through the statement that Sheikh Hasina was permitted to return to Bangladesh in 1981. Permitted? And by whom? The report makes absolutely no mention of the fact that her homecoming was preceded by her election as president of the Awami League by the leading figures of the party in Dhaka. The gap in information is rather glaring.

A common error made by Western journalists in their assessments of democracy or the lack of it in Bangladesh relates overall to the conflicting positions of the two major parties. Not much of an emphasis is there on the history of the two military dictatorships which undermined Bangladesh’s politics for as long as 21 years. 

That the struggle for a restoration of democracy in the country has essentially been a battle against such demons as “Bangladeshi nationalism” and the re-entry into national politics of pro-Pakistan Bengali collaborators between 1975 and 1996 is pushed aside, with hardly a mention of such realities.

Wrong information about history or inadequate information about historical happenings prevents observers of a nation’s politics from educating themselves on the background of such a nation. The result is a misrepresentation of the nation in the media overseas.

When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government is referred to as Pakistan’s first elected government, without any mention of the fact that it was a government by default because the majority party winning the 1970 elections had been prevented from assuming power and had opted to wage a guerrilla war against Pakistan, it is a misrepresentation of historical realities.

In similar fashion, much of the Western media has tended to characterize the 1971 conflict as an India-Pakistan war. That is half the story. The half that is missed is that between March 26 and December 16, 1971, it was a war between Bangladesh’s Mukti Bahini and Pakistan’s army. 

When such realities are papered over, it becomes difficult for researchers of history to explain to western audiences the actual nature of the situation. On a good number of occasions, both in Britain and India, I have had to recall the entire history of 1971, with all its details major and minor, in order to enlighten people on the idea of Bangladesh and indeed of South Asian history.

Quite some years ago, CNN presented brief glimpses of different countries in the break between its news reports. Bangladesh’s image, as it was offered on the screen, was of a crowd of men with skull caps (tupis) on their heads, conveying the disturbing impression that the country was home to nothing more than a fundamentalist society. That image was thankfully done away with by CNN years ago. 

But for many in the West, such images have been the stereotype into which Bangladesh has regularly been imprisoned. In the issue of TIME earlier referred to, a prominent Bengali is quoted as saying, given the ongoing political agitation by the opposition, that “they [Awami League] don’t have a safe exit.” That is a statement of alarmist proportions, making it sound that the ruling party is in dire straits and is engaged in trying to save itself from disaster. 

The statement is a reminder of a similar comment made on Al Jazeera some years ago by another Bengali, no fan of the ruling party, to the effect that if the Awami League lost power, its activists would be torn to pieces. He was of course detained by the state soon after, but in the West a plenitude of voices rose in his support, in defense of freedom of expression. None of them noted the fact that his incendiary statement itself militated against freedom of speech.

Of course, not everything is right in the country and any pretence that life is happy would be wrong. We need to tide over our political chaos; we need to ensure the rule of law in society; we need politicians to begin acting as rivals rather than as enemies; we need political leaders to put a leash on their more rabid followers in order for citizens to lead lives free from worry and tension. 

We are in need of politicians who will speak to one another instead of snapping at one another. In the end, we are in enormous requirement of a society which promotes political tolerance and liberalism, a society where decent, polite and meaningful interchange will form the substance of conversation.

And, additionally, it is for all of us and especially for our scholars to keep watch on the Western media and how they view our politics and comment on them. The errors of judgment and fact they make about us should be highlighted and swiftly subjected to a rebuttal. That is what national self-esteem calls for. 

Syed Badrul Ahsan is Consultant Editor, Dhaka Tribune.

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