Toxic spirit and sensationalism | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 13, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:47 AM, February 13, 2021

Toxic spirit and sensationalism

Five students of a private university went to a restaurant at Uttara to get a drink. Little did they know that their youthful venture would turn out to be national headlines: two died, while others got arrested! The cause of death was probably adulterated alcohol. Doctors who attended one of the patients in her dying hours mentioned alcohol poisoning. The police knew all too well that before the availability of the viscera report the cause of death could not be ascertained. A section of the newspapers and the electronic media cried rape citing the allegations made by the father of the victim. The victims were named, the institution to which they belonged were slandered, and the friends who tried to help were taken on police remands.

On the same day, members of a "reputed" PR house went out on a similar retreat in an upscale suburban resort. Adulterated alcohol took the lives of three employees, blinded one and a few others are still in critical conditions. Media blurred the names and downplayed the incident. The first incident was sensationalised because an aggrieved father, who probably could not process the fact that his daughter was going out with a boyfriend resulting in her death, filed a rape case. The second incident was muffled by the same media probably because the PR house is a great source of their ad revenues. Something is toxic here!

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There have been about 30 deaths caused by toxic liquor in the country in January alone. The most number of casualties are from Bogra where 11 people died after consuming spurious spirit. The last news evaporated as is the fate of most news from outside of Dhaka. But the first one refuses to go away, perhaps because "rape" sells. Even when there was no act of forceful violation of the body, the media knows that the very idea titillates the imagination of the public. The media knows their public all too well. They keep on pouring stuff they like. They are filling up the glass of imagination for their audience and readers so that the punters get intoxicated with ideas. Let's unpack the situation, and try to discern who or what is toxic in this situation!

Everyday people die all over the world from the consumption of adulterated alcohol. "The magnitude of this issue is unfortunately huge considering that 25 percent of the alcohol consumed around the world is counterfeit" ("Food Fraud", Neogen). There is a growing tendency all over the world to distil methanol (the spirit normally used in industrial and household products such as pesticide, varnish etc.) and mix it with some cheap products such as burnt sugar and colour to pass it as ethanol—the edible spirit. To make and save a few takas, the spirit makers indulge in a dangerous business.

Then there are the people drawn to this spirit for recreation purpose, for chemical dependency, or for social bondage. I am not in a position to make a judgement call to label it as right or wrong. There are cultural and religious gatekeepers to do so. Some may find such a culture of alcohol consumption toxic; others may find it sociable. And both stand on solid grounds to defend their stances.

In Bangladesh, I have been told, you need to carry an official license (i.e. medical certificate) in order to drink legally. I guess such certificates too can be easily doctored for regular club goers and habitual drinkers. I do not know whether the two students of a private university and the three employees of a private firm who died from adulterated alcohol are regular drinkers or not. I am rather intrigued by the representation of their deaths in the media.

Let's begin with the word "private", for instance. The word roots back to 14th century, meaning, "pertaining or belonging to oneself, not shared, peculiar to an individual only;" of a thing, "not open to the public, for the use of privileged persons;" from Latin privatus "set apart (from what is public), belonging to oneself (not to the state), peculiar, personal." 

The purpose of these two groups was to partake in a "private" activity of leisure. It was not meant to harm anyone or any institution. But the moment their "private" affairs took one wrong turn, different institutions got involved (e.g. police, hospital, media, lawyers and so on). And the moment the private and the public collided, bang, there was news!  Now, the question arises, why use "private" as a modifier? Isn't "a student" a student irrespective of her institutional public/private affiliation? Or is there another ore that can be mined to make it a lucrative mineral commodity. Power and money are two steering forces that transform the face of the private in the public.        

Again, the general perception is, the private is the locus of the privileged: private schools, private universities, private banks are placed where stakes and perks are higher. The reality perhaps is far from it. Yet the perception persists that only the rich people's children go to private institutions. Therefore, any "public" opportunity to cerebrally berate them can be self-gratifying for those outside the "private" realm. They get more traction when the private walls are eroded and the public eyes can pry. I am reminded of the American writer William Faulkner's short story "A Rose for Emily" where the whole town shows up after the death of an aristocratic woman who lived a private life. Her privacy was intruded, and her secret affair was revealed at the expense of her previously well-guarded reputation, and it became a source of juicy gossips.

The news media is well known for spreading gossips. Editorial choices as well as selective and manipulated representations are responsible for spin-offs, maximising content reach via algorithmic manipulation. The supply-demand nexus change the mindset of the audience. The editors know that there is a demand for sensational news; by the same token, they supply news that will create a niche for such news. The irony is, more and more private channels are coming up, to make the private public. In a rat race, all are trying to become trendsetters and norm-breakers, soliciting likes and subscriptions.

Mainstream news channels too are morphing to walk the walk and talk the talk. Some are curating their contents for an online audience. Images are used to spice up the news. Visual clues are given to guide the perception of the audience in one direction. For instance, images of the private party in which the students had their drinks are recreated to excite the imagination of the audience. The media trial influences the other legal agencies and public bodies to address such toxic behaviour. They looked for something extra. They found something extra in the words of an involved party who was not in the right frame of mind to see through things. Victim shaming goes on as the dead cannot speak.

Now tell me, of all the spirits in which the news was tabled, which one do you find toxic?


Shamsad Mortuza is Professor of English (on leave), University of Dhaka and Pro Vice Chancellor, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).


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