Monday, August 15, 2011

The Economist Story : A Simple Insult Or A Warning?

The Economist of London ran a story in which it said that the Awami League won the last election with the help of Indian advice and bags of cash. Unless there is smoking gun evidence against the allegation, this story will be considered one of the bottom points of journalism anywhere.
It is so stupid a comment that one is forced to think that this couldn’t have been allowed unless some royal conspiracy is being hatched to destabilise Bangladesh or the British press has finally caught up with the mindset of the Dhaka street media. Or are things more awkward than we think?
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The Economist of London really seems to be running nasty on this story. Bangladesh’s official rejoinder was printed in its Asian blog and not its printed edition. Of course, an Economist editor has said that this is because the story was received so late that week. One will have to see if it gets the printed treatment in its next edition. If not, there seems to be some reasons for concern because how can any Western media outlet be so blatantly offensive and non-professional in its work?
Unless of course, it is part of a larger smear campaign as the FM Dipu Moni has suggested. If that is so, one must identify the reasons why this very public insult and a risky one at that has been delivered.
Any speculation that the rejoinder was not published on the printed pages because it was so badly drafted and terribly written is not true.
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It is no secret that Bangladesh under Hasina is close to India. There is no shame in that; in fact it is welcomed. Countries like ours cannot survive on their own and need friends. Our war effort in 1971 was full of friends so why should we cringe now after 40 years? What has been in the air for a while is that, while Bangladesh can claim to be anti-terrorist in action, its spirit is not of the kind the West feels close to.
Two positions have greatly strengthened its perception of Bangladesh; its actions on Grameen Bank and trashing of micro-credit as fraudulence when a powerful section of the West has embraced it as a pro-poor initiative and Bangladesh’s position on the CHT and the rights of the indigenous people which the West supports.
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The world is convinced that Hasina went after Yunus on the basis of personal miff. It may not be so but a reading of media reports and politicians’ statements on how bad Yunus was and how great Hasina was and how she deserved a prize made the anti-Grameen tirade a bad case of official denial. The attempt to trash micro-credit which is considered an effective tool of poverty alleviation through entrepreneurship and supported by economists everywhere including in Bangladesh made the government seem more bent on revenge than having common sense.
The government came out in a poor light with the message to the West that it was not looking at economics and poverty alleviation with scientific eyes. This action alienated that powerful section of the Westerners including those at the policy level. While many in Bangladesh felt insulted by the kind of statements made by the West supporting Yunus, it is possible that such noises were a reflection of the kind of miff the West felt in reality about the entire matter.
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At the moment, the West is very unhappy with the present government’s position on the CHT and indigenous people issue and the kind of treatment it has meted out policy wise. While many have dismissed the matter in Bangladesh, it is a serious one in the West where it is thought to be a critical part of the human rights framework.
By taking an uncompromising stand on the identification of the CHT people as Adivasis/indigenous people and sticking to descriptions prescribed by Sheikh Mujib in 1972, it came out looking as anti-minority, particularly of the indigenous people variety. Its nose thumbing of the UN on the matter was disastrous policy stance at its best and the idea that such actions have no repercussions was diplomatic blindness at its worst.
In just a year, Bangladesh has picked up a bad reputation internationally as anti-poor, anti-minority and not willing to have a conversation with the West on matters it considers serious. Thinking it will not have repercussions is not a smart thought.
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But does Bangladesh have a positive record when it comes to running smear campaigns on its own? Here is what a news analysis in the Daily Star which sharply criticises the Economist magazine also has to say; “But at the same time may we remind the government that it should also refrain from any smear campaign like the one done against an unnamed editor by the defence adviser to the prime minister. Or say, like the one against founder of Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus.”
Bangladesh government must come out of the kind of shell it thought existed in the ‘70s and participate in a more realistic world where it is neither the only source of wisdom nor the opposition the only fountain of criticism.
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There is speculation already in Dhaka’s air that the position may put some stress on peacekeeper hiring which it seems is a product of pure nervousness but it also shows how deeply connected we are to the West in our search for stability. A huge army that has no work at home except ‘taking over government’ should always be kept busy abroad. It is all the more needed since many of them have lost huge money in the stock markets and aren’t feeling very relaxed nowadays. This implies that our political system is based on conditions over which we have little control. The last things we need are experiments.
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Bangladesh can’t claim to be pro-Western when its actions are so obviously against Western sentiments. The present government must be far more careful about whom it pleases and whom it doesn’t and how it does so. Just as the AL and BNP leaders are ruthless when it comes to dealing with opponents, so is the West and it would be childishness to be na├»ve about that.
Mere friendship with India may not be enough to preserve peace. If a magazine like the Economist can trash Bangladesh so obviously and in disregard of its journalistic principles, imagine what the Western governments are capable of doing.
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The Economist article should become a test of our resolve. Should we just let it go or pursue it to the end? It is such a great opportunity to prove the Western media as stupid as some of our own. On to the defamation courts, please.

By :  Afsan Chowdhury.