Media, commonly known as the fourth pillar of democracy (fourth pillar of the estate) in today's world unfortunately fails to function as such. There are millions of media outlets around the world ranging from print to electronic but when it comes to credibility and trustworthiness the numbers are much less. Students of media and journalism of the sixties and seventies must have heard the name of the Walter Cronkite (1916-2009) who was the lead anchor-man for US news channel CBS who is still cited as "the most trusted man in America" as he refused to read a news whose authenticity or credibility lacked sufficient evidence. In his days Walter Cronkite became an institution and legend during his lifetime so much so that some days Dan Rather would substitute for Walter Cronkite and would begin his news casting with "this is Dan Rather substituting for Walter Cronkite."
Today, though the number of media of all sorts, from print to social media or alternative media have grown at an exponential rate, the credibility gap and trust deficit also continues to expand and go deep, as many of them execute their own covert agenda. That can be very dangerous not only for the world of media but also for democratic institutions as well. Keeping abreast with what is happening in the country and outside has been my passion from childhood. In the days when the internet was not easily accessible and I was travelling I made sure that a good number of newspapers were preserved at home so that on my return I could scan through and see if I have missed anything important. My passion for news is still alive and continues to grow and as we live in a digital world being with the news as it develops is much easier today than it was before.
During our War of Liberation, two international media became very popular in every household of occupied Bangladesh, BBC and VOA. Both are controlled by the government but tried to be objective while providing news of our liberation war and people believed in what they heard. Though we had our own 'Swadin Bangla Betar Kendra' and India's 'Akash Bani' the public perception was that as India was an active part of our liberation war their news may have some bias as was the perception of our own Swadin Bangla Betar Kendra. BBC journalist based in Dhaka, Nizamuddin was killed by the Al-Badar goons of Jamaat-e-Islami towards the end of the war. Mark Tully, also of BBC stationed in India also became a household name in Bangladesh and still remains to be so. In the US people still trust what they hear from CBS, ABC and NBC. CNN, though is a popular channel, its reporting seems to lack in-depth analysis. Fox News has the lowest credibility. New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post and Wall Street Journal's objective reporting and analysis have given them a high degree of credibility and trustworthiness.
In the November of 1996 the world of media saw the emergence of an Arab World based TV channel Al-Jazeera. Based in Doha of Qatar and funded by the Government of Qatar the channel has already been criticised by certain quarters for serving the cause of Islamist fundamentalists like Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood known as the mother organisation of militancy in the name of Islam was founded in Egypt in 1928 to spread hatred and militancy in the region. In 2017, the Saudi Arabia, Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt shut down all its offices in these countries and banned airing of its programmes. Al-Jazeera came to be known in Bangladesh more when the coalition forces led by the US invaded Iraq and Libya. The coalition forces even used a makeshift studio based in Qatar to air their progress in the invasion using Al-Jazeera facilities. The TV channel has also been accused of two different versions of the same story, one for the English speaking countries and the other one for the Arab World, defying all the norms of objective and ethical journalism.
Al-Jazeera played a controversial role when those accused of committing crimes against humanity in our Liberation War in 1971 were being tried in the International Crimes Tribunal. They branded this trial a sham trial and a travesty of natural justice, in spite of the fact that the trial was being held in an open court and those accused were given all the facilities to have their defence lawyers. Jamaat-e-Islami was even aided by a British Barrister Toby Cadman. Despite being a Jew himself he went on to advise the defence lawyers of Jamaat though in Bangladesh Hitler's mass extermination of the Jews in Germany and other parts of Europe before and during the Second World War is still condemned. That same Toby Cadman went to advice the Jamaat lawyers on how to deny a world recognised genocide that happened in Bangladesh in 1971, besides acting as a lobbyist for them to lobby the international community to pressurise Bangladesh government to stop the trial. Along with him, another British journalist, David Bergman found fault with everything at the ICT and wrote and spoke in some international media that the Jamaat Leaders' trial for genocide is a total miscarriage of justice though he would regularly attend the proceedings of the Tribunal. He was once reprimanded by the court and was warned if he did not abide by the norms of the court, his entry into the court will be restricted. Both Cadman and Bergman audaciously remarked that the number of those killed in the genocide of 1971 is not three million as recorded. The number will not be more than three to five hundred thousand, as believed by Begum Zia of BNP.
Not being comfortable with the continued success of the present government under Sheikh Hasina there is now another round of conspiracy being hatched from outside Bangladesh by a number of absconding journalists and sacked army officers accused of corruption and other crimes. With them they have found a willing partner in Al-Jazeera. On Monday they began airing a TV film involving Bangladesh titled 'All the Prime Minister's Men.' Here the Prime Minister is Sheikh Hasina. Anyone who has a minimum of knowledge of film editing will be able to understand how naively Al-Jazeera managed to manipulate events, dramatised and produced a graphic thriller inserting manufactured off-voice though claiming that the film is made using hidden devices.
In the Centre of the so called investigation reporting is the omnipresent David Bergman and one Brad Adams, supposed to be a human rights' activist. There were few Bangladeshi characters, one key person involved in this conspiratorial venture is a person called Sami. The so-called investigative report intentionally maligned a few important institutions of the state ranging from the office of the President, the armed forces, the border security forces and the law enforcing agencies. By any standard what Al-Jazeera began to air on Monday is not journalism but a public propaganda based on fabricated incidents, half-truth and lies, the intention being not only to malign the image of the Prime Minister but also of Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government rightly protested the airing of such 'investigative reporting.' It would not be wise to impose a ban on Al-Jazeera in Bangladesh but it will be appropriate to declare each and every one who is involved in producing and airing it persona non grata in Bangladesh. At the end of the day the image of the important offices and institutions of the country must be preserved. There is no denying the fact that there are problems of corruption in Bangladesh but the local media are very active in exposing them and these days the government itself is very harsh when it comes to taking appropriate action against these perpetrators.
* The writer is a former Chairman, University Grants Commission of Bangladesh.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.