Obituary of the Observer
THE obit of the Bangladesh Observer is certainly sad news for the media world and many will mourn it. The news of the Observer's closure appeared at a time when the country's media is already shadowed by closures of a TV channel and a vernacular daily, although the Observer wound down for a different reason.
The Observer's squabbling owners decided to close the long-suffering daily on June 8 as journalists and employees who had been running the broadsheet since 1991 came out of the office after a labour court judge handed them cheques as per an agreement signed earlier between the employees' union and the daily's owners. The newspaper had been gasping for many years due to a dispute between its owners and employees.
The Bangladesh Observer, which was earlier Pakistan Observer, appeared in 1949 when there was no TV, satellite cable, internet and other social networks. It chronicled the lives and struggles of this land's people. The paper was banned in 1952 for its favourable stance toward the Language Movement and East Pakistan's provincial autonomy.
The Observer also played a vital role promoting communal harmony when a small-scale communal riot occurred here in 1964. Its role in helping to grow an enlightened class of Bengali intelligentsia and raising the common people's fundamental ethos earned recognition from all quarters.
The paper was secular in outlook and strictly shunned hints of communalism at a time when Pakistan was insidiously injecting communalism into the people's way of thinking. The well-laid-out policy that made the Observer purposive and effective in its treatment of news and projection of views will be remembered for many years.
The Observer's first editor, Abdus Salam, became a journalism legend for his outstanding editorship and professionalism. People would consider the paper's editorials and columns as a means of guidance on any political and social issue. It became a symbol of opinionated and responsible journalism. The demise of such a newspaper has made many feel diminished.
It was renamed Bangladesh Observer in December 1971 but the then-government brought it under state control in 1972. President H.M. Ershad handed over ownership back to Hamidul Haque Chowdhury in 1984. The paper's closure has marked an end of an era of opinionated and responsible journalism.
However, one may feel consolation that the Observer's closure may be momentary and the paper may reappear after it straightens all its tangles. The Observer's owners must realise that their squabbling had plagued the 60-year-old newspaper, which had the chance of becoming a milestone in media history.
A newspaper's closure is not saddening news only for the paper's journalists and employees who lose their jobs, but also for its readers who miss the paper's presence in the morning. When the owners of the Rocky Mountain News, a 150-year-old daily newspaper of Colorado in the US, announced their decision to shut it down on February 26, 2009, not only the journalists and paper's employees but also the dwellers of Denver city were in grief.
"It's very rare that you get to play the music at your own funeral, so you want to make sure you do it well," said John Temple, the newspaper's editor at a hastily called press conference while he prepared for the paper's final edition. Lynn Bartels, one of its reporters held a box of tissues over her head and called out to her tearful colleagues: "This is for everybody." The people, who were present in and around the Observer House on June 8 might have witnessed a similar scene.
The world is changing tremendously. The breakthroughs that one witnessed in the past decade have been enormous. People are increasingly embracing the internet and new gadgets associated with it, instead of print media. Millions of people now receive their news and information from the internet. The print media's agonising struggle to survive in the changing world is notable.
The internet, Twitter, Facebook and others represent a revolution in communication, empowerment and the making of public opinion. Their effect on our lives has been astounding. Millions of people have become part of an exponentially growing network. Not all are informed, and few are leaving their imprint on major issues facing them and other citizens.
Spot on Public Relations, a Middle Eastern PR agency specialising in social media, found that, as of May 2010, Facebook has more than 15 million users in the Middle East, easily surpassing the region's newspaper sales of just under 14 million.
This news comes just over a year after the social networking site was introduced an Arabic platform. Facebook added an Arabic interface only in March of last year, and since then 3.5 million users have been added, so there was very quick growth in the Arabian market.
Newspapers and news magazines have been instrumental in shaping the world. Fragmentation has become a semblance of new media. Instead of one TV channel, the country now has many. Google and others have dispersed hundreds of millions of users into the realms of the World Wide Web. Thus, the world has changed a lot.
Still, the print media has been playing a central role in our political, economic and social evolution for decades. It was and still remains a conductor of ideas, a tool and a delivery mode, though in today's wired world, this tool is considered archaic and stale. Publishers have looked for ways to ride the technological wave and almost all newspapers now have online presence to support print.
The Observer, a chronicler of Bangladesh's tumultuous history, must not be allowed to die. We once again affirm our hope that the Observer will reappear with all its vigour and dignity.
A.N.M. Nurul Haque is a columnist of The Daily Star.