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     Volume 4 Issue 12 | September 10, 2004 |

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The War Over Airtime

Shamim Ahsan

On August 21, when shocked, panic-stricken people were desperately switching from one TV channel to the other to get the latest update of the deadliest grenade attack on an AL rally, BTV its news at 8 pm started with the President's summoning of the Parliament session. About 15 minutes into the news, BTV finally managed to find a few seconds for what other channels considered breaking news. That too, the report was on those who had expressed shock at the tragic incident. Not a word about how, where, exactly when it took place and the casualties the grenade attack had inflicted, was mentioned. BTV viewers, especially those who live in the villages and small towns and don't have cable connection, had no clue about the hell that had broken loose in the form of a grenade attack on an AL rally that had killed 20 and injured more than 200.

Such absolute indifference or deliberate negligence on the part of BTV when it comes to giving coverage to the opposition isn't exactly a new habit. BTV's news has been a tailored version of the real news and is made up for the benefit of the government or to slander the opposition. General people have long grown habituated to seeing BTV playing to the tune of the government party. So, few eyebrows are raised.

Until, of course, PM Khaleda Zia, Information Minister Shamsul Islam and some other senior cabinet ministers got furious for BTV's failure to air the grenade attack news with due importance, according to a Prothom Alo report on August 23. Some of the ministers even went to the length of terming BTV's unscrupulous behaviour an act that would put one or two scratches on the government's good image. Many of the honourable ministers were so incensed that the executive producer of BTV Kazi Mostak Zahir was immediately kicked out of the news department.

This time eyebrows were raised. Though some want to give the government credit for punishing the responsible TV official, critics believe the officer is being made a scapegoat. If history is any indication, BTV has always been the Government's TV, a propaganda machine, the mouthpiece of the ruling party. It acquired different names at different times Shaheb- Bibi- Golam TV during Ershad regime, Awami TV, Jatiyatabadi TV, etc. Given the tradition BTV has been directed in a most partisan, biased way, isn't it only natural that BTV's news people acted exactly the way they were supposed to do, which was to wait for an official directive? What then made the government so furious? One possibility is that this anger is merely eyewash the government is putting on to save face at the expense of an innocent officer, who has acted exactly the way he has always acted.

There is another possibility though. The government, or the information ministry to be more precise, does not have absolute control over BTV. In other words, some other group could be calling the shots from behind the scenes. A recent report in The Daily Star seems to give weight to the second presumption. According to the report, the rank and file of the ruling BNP expressed their resentment at BTV's news coverage of its rally on August 30 in protest of the August 21 grenade attack as well as recent criminal activities and anarchy in the country. The aggrieved BNP high-ups alleged that BTV gave better coverage of the ruling alliance partner Jamaat rally held on the same day for the same purpose. In spite of the fact that the BNP rally was much bigger. In spite of the fact that it is the BNP-led government, with BNP constituting more than 90 per cent of the entire alliance.

Unnamed sources in BNP high-ups also claimed that BTV is now fully controlled by pro-Jamaat officials and the head of news section is an anti-liberation element who fought on the side of the Pakistani occupation forces.

What does this mean then? Is BNP losing its grip on power to its greatly smaller alliance partner Jamaat? Is the opposition prediction, especially that of the Awami League and the left parties, that Jamaat is strengthening its own position within the administration riding on the much broader shoulder of BNP? Though Jamaat is now aligning with BNP now, it could choose any other party (in fact it kind of joined with AL to overthrow the BNP government in 1996) to reach a position from where they can work on their own without any other party's assistance. They have their own agenda, their own ideology, their own vision of the society and the nation, and they are only manipulating A-party or B-party for the moment to reach their own target.

The opposition's paranoia therefore, does not seem completely unfounded. If we look at the different public universities, pro-Jamaat people are greatly outnumbering pro-BNP people in occupying teaching posts. Moreover, if BNP needs more clues about how far Jamaat has spread its footing, BTV is the best example. If Jamaat can control the prime time bulletin so absolutely that BNP gets less coverage than Jamaat, and if BTV can sabotage the government and embarrass it the way it has done by its suspicious coverage on the grenade attack on the AL rally, it's time BNP woke up. What so far has been seen as the opposition's fear and civil society's concern, has started to become a major headache to BNP, at least to a particular quarter of BNP. Hopefully other BNP leadership will take the cue from them. Perhaps it is not too late.



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