A well-known Bengali journalist stated a few days ago that General Ziaur Rahman wished to divorce his wife Khaleda Zia back in the early 1970s. He went a little further, to let his audience know that Zia had never fought in the War of Liberation, that indeed he had no idea of what a war was.
These comments were as unwarranted as they were unethical. Remarks of this kind do not in any way enhance the reputation or credibility of the journalists making them. They only hint at the low point to which journalism, at the hands of some of its practitioners, may have sunk in Bangladesh, the point being an attempt to tar people with the brush of innuendo and scandal. In the case under consideration, the question which comes to mind relates to how our journalist came to know about the state of the Zia marriage. Beyond that, there is the legitimate query of whether it was, or is, at all necessary or proper to undermine a public figure through such below-the-belt means as casting aspersions on her marriage.
It is not the business of a journalist to reflect on the state of politicians’ marriages, unless of course those marriages impinge on a proper functioning of the State. Of course, there are people in the media world, here in Bangladesh, whose political partisanship is well pronounced. But that ought to be no reason for them to try running down men and women who they may not agree with politically and who are in the limelight through abusing the calling of journalism. In Bangladesh, where history has been distorted and suppressed and selectively presented, it ought not to be for journalists to determine who fought in the war and who did not, not to be for them to try destroying the reputations of those who have become part of history. The chronicles of time have already assured such individuals their spaces in the national historical narrative.
Journalism in Bangladesh has sometimes been dealt deathly blows by its very practitioners. Early in November 1975, a leading Bengali journalist spread the canard of an Indian missive, suggesting the release of four national leaders then in prison and handing over power to them, being intercepted in Dhaka by the murderous cabal then holding the country in its grip. Within a few hours, the four leaders — men who had been leading lights in the Mujibnagar government in 1971 — were bludgeoned to death in prison. Subsequently, when asked if he had the letter in his possession, the journalist answered in the affirmative. Somewhat later, he averred that he had seen the letter in someone else’s possession. Much later, he admitted that he had not had the opportunity to see the letter.
And yet on the basis of a false report by this newsman, four of the best of men in our politics lay dead. Nothing happened to the journalist, who moved on to better niches and eventually died a peaceful death. That of course reminds us of the journalist through whose hands an image of a young woman clad in a sack in the tough days of 1974 went around the world. That image of Bashanti did incalculable harm to the reputation of Bangabandhu’s government, which was already under pressure on a number of fronts. The government was to fall in a bloody coup d’etat that would push the country into medieval darkness for twenty one years. And, worse, that picture of the young woman preserving her modesty attired in a sack turned out to have been an untruth, a set-up.
In the course of the nine-month War of Liberation, two Bengali journalists happily toed the line of the Pakistan military junta through dutifully and regularly producing and presenting a propaganda programme they called Plain Truth from the Dhaka centre of Radio Pakistan. Once Liberation came, one of these two men surreptitiously and mysteriously insinuated himself into the corridors of power as press secretary to the Bangladesh Prime Minister, in this case Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. Within days, however, his 1971 role was exposed and he was shown the door. In the years that followed, though, this journalist went from one important position to another, both in the newspaper industry and in government. Absence of ethics appeared to have brought him rich dividends.
It is not only in Bangladesh that journalists have strayed from the well-defined paths set for them by the calling of their profession. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Z.A. Suleri made sure that he pleased all dictatorial regimes in Pakistan with his sycophancy. He had a knack for changing political loyalties every time one regime gave way to another. It was a quality which certainly did not enhance his reputation but only exposed the naked opportunism in him. Journalism ends where opportunism comes in, a reality we have noted in the propensity of some leading media men to curry favour with military rulers, a skill that often helps them find places in such extra-constitutional regimes as ministers. This has happened both in Pakistan and Bangladesh. The story began with Altaf Husain, editor of Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, soliciting and finding a berth in the government of Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan in 1965.
Journalism without ethics is a danger to society. Media people who gloat in insulting politicians, be they in government or outside it, make a bad casualty of professionalism. Morality then takes a bad beating.