Complex relations... the pen, the gun, freedom
There are certain fields of study that scholars, for a variety of reasons, hesitate to undertake, especially in a developing country like Bangladesh, which has experienced for the greater part of its existence military, disguised military, and one-party rule. The latest catastrophe to have hit its political system, the phenomenon called 1/11 and its unsavoury aftermath, has the armed forces shoring up an insipid, at times comical, civilian façade. The fact of military/disguised military rule has been a reality for Bangladesh. As has been a functioning media during those years. And, to say the least, relations between the two have been as sensitive as they have been complex.
Rezwan-ul-Alam has undertaken the task of exploring those relations in the book under review. It is probably among the incipient substantial works on the subject in this country. Military-Media Relations in Bangladesh is, in the author's words, "the reproduction of my Ph.D. thesis titled: 'Military Rule and the Media: A Case Study of Bangladesh'." And, because it is a faithful reproduction, it is beset with the flaws generally associated with the verbatim reproduction of a dissertation format into a book form. Having said that, however, this is a book worth reading, both for its content and analysis. The author begins with a couple of intriguing questions that he later on attempts to find answers to: "Were military rulers responsible for the deterioration of standards of journalism in the country? Was the role of the journalists positive in fighting the autocracy as has been portrayed by the journalists themselves?" The arresting words in the first query are "deterioration of standards of journalism". Other than the purblind, and their numbers are not at a premium, there is a consensus among discerning persons that the standards have steadily degenerated compared to even thirty years back, and markedly to that of the 1960s. While journalistic standards have hardly risen above mediocrity in the audio-visual medium, the decline in the more vibrant print media is alarming. There are still standout journalists to be found in this medium, but their number might have begun to be overwhelmed by the dubious/mediocre variety. \So, were the military rulers responsible for the steady decline? Alam studies the regimes of Ziaur Rahman and HM Ershad to arrive at an answer. A particular conclusion provides clues to this and several other queries that he has sought to find answers to: "…the concept of press freedom is anathema to the military mind, but that the military relied heavily on elite networks of inter-personal communication within the media for its preparation of coups and for legitimacy after grabbing power." Interestingly, the military viewpoint is graphically captured, albeit provided in the context of the American armed forces, in the words of a US Air Force officer: "Journalists are self-serving by nature, compensated based upon copy-inch published, and focused solely upon their self-aggrandizing ego and the increase in circulation their sensationalism spawned. The visual medium (TV) is the worst of the bunch." And, one cannot resist, while keeping Bangladesh in comparative perspective, this fascinating bit of information Alam alludes to regarding the American military mindset: "In ranking its confidence in various institutions, the military ranked themselves first in confidence, followed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the medical profession and major educational institutions. Newspapers were in 9th place, with the U.S. Congress and television news at the bottom of the ratings." Could that be one of the reasons for the introduction of the curious phenomenon called "embedded journalists" in the 2003 US invasion of Iraq?
Alam has come up with a theory to explain military-media relations in Bangladesh. His collaboration-opposition-collaboration hypothesis is, as he explains, applied to Bangladesh based on J. Herbert Altschull's advancing press model. The variant has come about as a result of this authorial assessment: "While Bangladeshi journalists are perceived as being socially responsible, there is a great deal of debate whether they all serve truth or are instruments of peace or work for social change or are all instrument of social justice or a vehicle for two way exchanges." Alam has resorted to four principal methods of qualitative research --- case study, field observation, focus group and intensive interview --- plus liberal use of secondary literature to arrive at this particular conclusion, as well as to explore his study objectives: to identify the media climate during the regimes of General Ziaur Rahman and General Ershad; to identify the media's role in reinforcing military rule; to identify the nature of various pressures on the media; to identify the media's role in the resistance against the rule of General Ershad; and to identify the nature of interactions between the military, media and politics.
There is a generally consistent pattern of thoroughness to the study of his stated objectives, although the occasional information gap, uncertain analysis and moot conclusion crop up. However, his topic of study would probably preclude any consensus on his major conclusions. A couple of Alam's observations will provide a fairly accurate picture of the media during military regimes: "The media in Bangladesh has a long history of troubled and difficult times during 15 years of military rule. They were forced to rally support for the military regimes and was subjected, under threats of suppression, to act as an instrument of propaganda for the policies of those regimes. This general pattern of behaviour of the media, especially television, led The Times of London to comment that the press in Bangladesh was "traditionally a cowed and obedient poodle" (17 December 1990). And, "However…(o)n many occasions the journalists of Bangladesh stood firmly and bravely against attempts by the military authorities to limit the freedom of the press."
In an important chapter, Alam delves into the legal provisions affecting freedom of the press in Bangladesh. He refers to Article 39 of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press and the right of every citizen to freedom of speech and expression, but they are subject to "reasonable restrictions" that include matters relating to state security and international relations, public order, decency and morality. It is a caveat that has been liberally resorted to by civilian and military regimes. He also focuses on such civilian government restrictive acts like the notorious Special Powers Act of 1974 that have been put to good use by military regimes.
Alam devotes a fair amount of attention to the role of the British press, BBC, VOA and the two major journalists unions in Bangladesh during the period of the military regimes. Here some of his conclusions may be found by some to be somewhat tenuous, but that would be natural in view of the divergence of opinions sure to be found whenever the matter of the impact of the foreign media on Bangladesh's affairs comes up.
Military-Media Relations in Bangladesh 1975-1990 is an important work that should be both instructive to all concerned about the future of the liberal democratic system in Bangladesh, and to scholars wishing to study the subject matter in its other dimensions. One would not wish to relive these strident observations of Alam with regard to the military rule from 1975 to 1990:"…journalists of Bangladesh lived under strict vigilance by the military authorities, who were not prepared to tolerate any criticism of their activities. The frequent closure of various publications and continued suspension of others reflected a marked disregard for internationally recognized standards of basic press freedom."