The Foreign Ministry has taken upon itself the beautiful task of assessing the patriotism or otherwise of the nation’s journalists. From here on, as a statement from the External Publicity Department of the ministry informs people, all Bengali journalists travelling abroad will be kept under watch and their activities on foreign soil will be reported to the authorities back home. The move of course follows a recent meeting of the parliamentary standing committee on foreign affairs. If the authorities are to be believed, journalists who have recently travelled abroad have been engaging in activities that go against Bangladesh’s interests.
Is that really the case? And on what basis is that judgment being made? As one who has been in journalism for close to thirty five years, I have had cause to visit India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Germany and Thailand to be part of seminars on myriad issues. There have been occasions when I have been invited by the government of India to visit Delhi along with some of my colleagues in the profession. In similar manner, I have been to Pakistan with other journalists. I have been a guest of the British government thrice in the last ten years. Are all these visits, for the powers that be, reason for my patriotism to be put under the scanner? When my colleagues working for the many newspapers and television channels in the country are invited by the governments of France, of China, of Russia to visit their countries — and indeed visit those countries — is that to be construed as an anti-State act?
There are a few points that need to be made here.
As a beginning, let me state unequivocally that I know from my experience, in all these years, that every journalist from Bangladesh who has been abroad at the invitation of foreign governments has in a dignified manner upheld Bangladesh’s interests. On visits to India, our media people have consistently drawn the attention of the Indian authorities to the outstanding problems between Delhi and Dhaka and they have done so forcefully and vociferously. On their visits to Pakistan, my colleagues in the profession — and I should know — took every opportunity to badger the Islamabad authorities on their failure to offer any apology to Dhaka over the genocide committed by their soldiers in occupied Bangladesh in 1971.
No, Sir, it is not proper that in a democracy, which we believe we are, there should be space for Big Brother. We are not North Korea. We are not Russia. We are not Turkey. We are not Uzbekistan. We do not inhabit an authoritarian state. We are not a country which sends out people all over the world to keep an eagle’s eye on what its citizens, especially its journalists, do abroad. We are not a country that goes after its own people on the basis of wrong and misplaced and misleading assumptions. It should not be the job of Bangladesh’s diplomatic missions abroad to tail their own visiting journalists on the suspicion that these journalists are out there to undermine their country. In Bangladesh, we have a fine community of journalists whose love of country, despite their different political orientations, remains impeccable. To presume that these journalists will speak ill of Bangladesh in Delhi or Islamabad or elsewhere is preposterous. It is more. It is outrageous, for it throws up the image of an establishment that has appropriated patriotism for itself. Everyone else is an enemy.
Let Bangladesh’s missions abroad keep tabs on visiting journalists from home, specifically for the purpose of introducing them to civil society in the host countries, the better to have them speak of Bangladesh before them. As citizens, we remain too aware of what our missions abroad fail to do, which is that they remain busy extending protocol to those wielding political authority when they go visiting abroad. Our scholars, academics, journalists and writers, when they are abroad on personal visits or have been invited by governments or are there to take part in regional seminars, are hardly noticed, which is not what you can say about the diplomatic missions of some other nations in foreign land. Let there be a change here. Let the government take it upon itself to dispatch journalists and scholars and writers to foreign capitals and have them speak of Bangladesh and its history and its heritage and its politics before foreign audiences.
It is a job that has been done very well by those very journalists who the authorities feel have been badmouthing the country abroad. To subject journalists to calumny, to have innuendo thrown at them, to bring their patriotism into question does not do Bangladesh proud. It undermines the integrity of Bangladesh’s journalistic community. And it badly dents our national image as a liberal, secular nation.
We rest our case.