Feature Img
Photo courtesy: Arif Hafiz

When I was a little girl, I always wanted Bangladesh to be ‘famous’. I did not like that whenever I went abroad, and people asked me where I was from, I would have to explain: “Bangladesh, this tiny country on the East of India.” Why could people not just know where my Motherland was?

At the age of 18 years when I went abroad for college, I discovered that Bangladesh was famous, at least in Charlottesville, Virginia. Famous for floods, cyclones, crippling poverty and dying children.

Now as a long-time resident of the States, I have found that Bangladesh nowadays is known as an ideal when it comes to ‘development’ indicators such as maternal mortality ratios, allowing women to enter the workforce en masse, particularly in our garment sector.

Speaking of the garments sector, there apparently is nothing the international media loves more (when it comes to Bangladesh) than factory fires that unfortunately almost at regular interval sweep through the country. Just look at the example of Tazreen Garments. Late last year when the story broke that major US chains, such as Walmart, manufacture their clothes in cheap labour factories tucked away in the outskirts of Dhaka, the Western press could not get enough. This story about lack or absolute absence of fire safety measures in Bangladeshi garment factories, costing thousands of poor Bangladeshi workers their lives almost every year, was swept up by the press. Not a day could go by when the Tazreen garment factory story was not mentioned in the news, and even major American outlets such as ABC and NBC were providing wall to wall coverage on the incident.

Photo: bdnews24.com
Photo: bdnews24.com

Is the West then only interested in press that perpetuates stereotypes of the ‘poor, brown, exploited worker’? Do they not want to hear when we rise up against religious extremism? Why then when the Shahbagh story is unfolding before the world’s eyes, the international media is looking away? Writer, Kachin Gupta, ponders in The Pioneer:

“Something remarkable is happening in Bangladesh which has gone under-reported, if not unnoticed, by newspapers and news television channels. What is a pity and a shame is that the international media, which goes into overdrive if 10 people gather at Tahrir Square or a bunch of lazy layabouts decide to ‘occupy’ Wall Street, has missed a story that tells more than one unfolding tale in a country with a bitter past and an uncertain future, a nation whose blood-soaked birth is unparalleled in recent history.”

Many experts even state that the gathering in the heart of the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka is a “social revolution akin to the French Revolution.” For over two weeks, thousands of Bangladeshi youths, organised largely by online activists and bloggers, have been leading a non-violent movement to deny religious fundamentalism a place in mainstream politics, demand death penalty for war criminals, and ban the student arm of the country’s largest fundamentalist party. Writer Saad Z Hossain, explains what makes the protests in Bangladesh so genuine:

“…The significance of Shahbagh is that ordinary people have taken to the streets after a long, long time. This is not about legal arguments, or capital punishment morality, or political manoeuvring towards future elections. I believe deep inside, this is a visceral rejection of fundamentalism, and the end game which Jamaat brings to the table. On some level I think people realize that there is no room for us in the kind of world they want to build. Our people are secular at heart. Our women work. We love music, and dancing. We care about literature, and language. Even with thousands in Shahbagh chanting for death, there is, inevitably, pockets of song and dance and plays, outbursts of the sentimentality which is our national character. We were never meant to be a fundamentalist state. This Jamaat thing is alien, even when perpetrated on us by some of our own. Shahbagh is the silent majority rising up against the use of religion to bully, the issuing of bewildering fatwas, the adoption of Arab dress and Arab ways, the blatant distortion of the past, the peculiar assault on our culture.”

Photo: Arif Hafiz
Photo: Arif Hafiz

The biggest story of an organic movement to resoundingly choose secularism over Islamic extremism is happening in one of the world’s largest Muslim democracies. So why is the world not acknowledging Shahbagh? Why does the majority of international media continue to either ignore the swelling numbers of ordinary Bangladeshis joining the movement, or still wrongly label the gathering in Shahbagh, and across the country, as the mass demand for capital punishment? Why as a blogger, and main leader of Shahbagh was hacked to death outside his home, and why as the Government looks to ban the country’s largest fundamentalist party, is the world not paying attention to Bangladesh as it is on course to change its history?

While in America it is sadly quite normal to have the press cover stories of hurricanes and lost pets over major stories happening in the rest of the world, sometimes even in place of wars, it is shocking to see the major global networks overlook Bangladesh’s cultural revolution. Is it because the world is confused by a Muslim country rejecting outright the mullahs and war criminals who have eaten away at our society? Can the Western press only make sense of our movements when we are storming the streets demanding higher wages, or when we’re running around as paid political stooges? Why is the media purposely missing out?

Perhaps they cannot make sense of Shabagh because it smashes any stereotype or prejudices the rest of the world may hold about poor, Muslim, “developing nations.” Or perhaps they don’t want to hear our call for justice, and genuine democracy, for secular governments.

Whatever shape Shahbagh takes, it is clear that, in the words of the poet, Gil Scot Heron, this “revolution will not be televised,” because clearly the world is busy watching other channels.

For now, at least.

Anushay Hossain is a Bangladeshi journalist and policy analyst based in Washington, DC.

32 Responses to “Media blackout: Why isn’t the world acknowledging Shahbagh?”

  1. Munz

    I started reading this article thinking that I was about to read something great. Unfortunately, it ended up being the most ridiculous article ever. Women in Islam work and are highly educated. Some of the biggest scholars were all women. You can’t look at a few Muslims and say ‘hey that’s what Islam represents’. Learn about the religion first and about the history. You’ll be surprised by what you learn and what you see now. You also need to learn and understand the politics behind Shahbag. It’s all dirty politics in Bangladesh and unfortunately, that’s all they are good for. Plus, there is no Muslim democracy in Bangladesh, there’s no democracy period. Bangladeshi women used to have a sense of modesty and self respect and now only a very few still do. You mentioned about the Arabs…the Arab governments give their women money to educate themselves. Even though Bangladesh has women leaders, they still keep their women uneducated and they call themselves secular. You have a lot of learning to do before writing up such articles. This write up obviously broadcasts your ignorance and illiteracy.

  2. Laal Poddo

    Shahbag has already gone to dumps dear Anushay Hossain. It was not worthy of being publicized since inception. They had no social, moral, legal, political authority to come to streets and start shouting to hang a few people they did not like. Needless to say, they have gone where they deserve to be…dumps.

  3. Mohammed

    This article is probably the most ridiculous one I’ve read. There are two points I like to make about the Shahbagh and Bangladesh.

    Firstly Bangladesh is a small country mostly surrounded by India and there is no material worth for the western world apart from cheap clothes going to Walmart and other big supermarkets in the west. No body gives a damn what happens to Bangladesh, its a third world country with no strategic value. This may be harsh but its the truth.

    Secondly regarding the so called justice seekers which they called themselves the Shahbagh, they are viewed as a bloodthirsty mob that wants people to be hanged no matter if they’re innocent or guilty. The Shahbagh are not calling for justice, they’re calling for the hanging JUST for the Jammat members, and banning of Islamic institution in Bangladesh, why they are going to be taken seriously when they have such a mindset. If they wanted justice, they will fight for a fair trial for the accused with according to International law. Just like Cambodia, Rwanda and other countries, but no, they just want these men hanged no matter what. Its ridiculous.

    If Islamic institution is banned, then I hope all the muslim countries don’t give any aid to Bangladesh. There should be strict sanctions by specially Saudi Arabia and other gulf states. I’m sure the secularists won’t mind since then prostrate directly to India and Russia.

  4. zak

    This is totally retarded that you decide to print my complaint regarding the original comment that you chose to not print and censor. Typically Bangladesh newsmedia controlled by the current government.

  5. Monir

    Bangladeshis should protest against the corruption of BNP and Awami Leagues alike. They should protest against other issues like hartal, student politics, regular BSF killing at borders, against Indian manipulation of water etc. These folks showing up at Shahbag just has too much time on their hand. Why are they silent on these major issues that impacts many in Bangladesh? There are bigger issues at stake. What is the NET GAIN of Bangladesh by hanging one criminal? It seems more like a personal or a political vendetta.

    I am not patronizing war criminals. I mean, god just gang-up and kill them if you like. No need to spend money using courts. If you’re going to spend all these time, screaming and writing, do it for something GOOD. something that benefits someone.

  6. Joy Ahmed

    Let’s take this answer of why international media not giving any attention to Shahbagh gathering because our government trying to sell something national as international. Explain how this trial became international crime tribunal. Then you would find the answer unless you ignore intentionally

  7. Mayisha Kabir

    Well to be very honest (and I am generalizing here) Western media has always been right wing bias, even the so called liberals.

  8. ZMIR

    Yesterday I submit a comment on this article however, upon submission I see it will be moderated. If you don’t honor free speech and opinion and censored then this article you post question international blackout on the topic is conflicting. My comments were were non offensive highlighting many underlying issues. I hope you’ll press is going to uphold truth and justice without any prejudice.

  9. Rahman

    18 days’ of Tahrir Square brought down a 30 year long dictatorship … Please, get a sense of perspective

  10. Siraj

    Many do not want to understand that the western power (USA/UK) is a silent player favoring fundamentalists in Bangladesh which is connected to their Middle East -South Asia policy. Look who are their biggest allies: Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – both are the resource of the fundamentalist Jamat’s policy, intelligence and funding.

  11. suman guha

    No need to care about international media like BBC or CNN. Everyone can become a media if he or she wants it honestly. We have a global communication to connect each one very individually. It’s very tough but it’s possible. So let’s try to make it happen. We shall overcome.

  12. md

    Where the Bangladesh media is completely biased in different issue, why should International media give attention to this issue? Who told that this is the movement of general people? It is completely run by Awami League Government. Why Bangladesh police not giving any chance to opposition to do any such type of protest? This Shabagh movement is not of any significance for the development of Bangladesh nor for the world media..

  13. Annonymous

    Shahbaag represents the moderates, regardless of the religion they follow. All religious leaders, specially the leaders in the Middle East are afraid of moderate beliefs and true spirituality as it is a threat to their personal agenda. Well Shahbag Jindabad, their fear is now a reality. This is how moderates retaliate and Bangladesh is the pioneer in the history of moderate world. The so-called first world countries still can’t bring themselves to stand against the religious bullies – it is a disgrace for them to accept a third world nation like Bangladesh has done it and done it so well.

  14. Faysal Kabir

    Initially I was annoyed as well that the western media has decided to shun this news. But then it dawned upon me that it is our internal matter. We do not need US media as it does not really matter to us what their opinion is. We have made up our mind to bring the razakars to justice who have wronged our forefathers. We will do it and going by the past record the US will only try to achieve one of their capitalist gains if they get involved. As far as I am concerned Americans can keep watching their stupid ‘reality’ shows. I understand that the writer feels a bit left out by not getting minute by minute update in US but that is the price you pay if you leave the country for more money and ‘better’ life (no offence).

  15. content soul

    Hello – I am sorry I cannot be in full agreement with your writing. When the Egyptian went to Tahrir square, they went against rifles, machine guns and tanks and were ready to sacrifice their lives and some of them did. What Shahbag did? It is a government-backed and financed gathering where police were guarding them and providing all possible facilities. The mass people were fooled by AL and leftist party activists in the name of ‘GONO JAGORON MONCHO”. Did you notice that Agni Kanna Lucky is the central leader of Chatra-Union and Imran (the conveyor) was active Chatra League cadre and now an Awami League activist. So where do you see the neutrality here? I am glad that the world media did not pick it up, later it would be a shame for the country.

    • russel

      open-up your third eye to fulfill the demand of death sentences of those rajakars only. For God’s sake ‘don’t make it a hot controversial issue’- keep your so-called thoughts aside.

      “hoi hoi roi roi, rajakar tui jabi koi”

  16. JoelK

    So you insult both the Occupy Wall Street campaign and the Arab Spring and then whine, “why does no one pay attention to us?”

    A class act, you are.

    Here’s a radical concept, Hossain (I’ll use small words so you can understand), Bangladesh already has democracy! You all have the right to vote. You’re in the exact situation you’re in because you elected people who put you there. If corruption or whatever you believe your problem to be is an issue, deal with it through your legislative system!

    Why do you need the rest of the world to give you attention? How low is your self-esteem? If this is such a big deal then why look around and say, “What? no one pays attention? But why? I am Bangladeshi I need outside support to make myself feel important…” as tears roll down your cheeks like a child. How insecure are you people?!

    Quit whining and use the tools you already have. Act like adults instead of children and maybe the world will actually pay attention.

  17. Alamgeer F Haque

    Firstly thanks Anushay Hossain, for your sincere and thoughtful write-up. I imagine my son has the same understanding and the dilemma about most cultural and diverse historical edifice of a country, like Bangladesh. You mentioned about the Walmart, who just escape through a safety net by accusing the Tazreen Garments that they are blame worthy for their security. As a result these corporate mal-virus created backlash from the US government which now not allow free trade and imposing quota all the Bangladeshi garments products! Their intervention in cheap labour and garments is hypocritical, they have the deed with the garments sector before doing business hence the checking all the issues that entails workers health, safety measures etc .. We know about Walmart and its ugly intervention by The Wal-Mart Effect written by Charles Fishman in States. The book penetrate its wall of silence or go beyond the usual polemics to analyze its actual effects on its customers, workers, and suppliers, so is Bangladeshi Garments Factory.

    and Shahbag movement… why the revolution will not be televised? We thought this revolution was greeted by the West as their intervention area is to root out fundamentalism of any kind! Its amazing to see their grave silence as if, it was after Vietnam vis-a-vis cold war, Bangladesh Liberation war of 71! Is it the premise being built up gradually of that very state of non cooperation by the West during 1971?

  18. Mahbub

    Dear Anushay,

    I think the answer is partly given in your second last para.. and I would like to add that… I have a feeling that US and the west perhaps never really want a closure of sore issues like this… mind it US (not the people) was against Liberation war and supported the Razakars…directly or indirectly…

    I do not even like the comparison with Tahrir square which was initialed by Political parties… in our case this is outburst of majority people frustration over a very basic issue …

    • kobir

      I think Anushay is miguided and naïve. My uncle and aunty died in the Liberation War. If anyone should be patriotic for my country it should be me. But I feel sorry for you all and the bankrupt Shabagh movement. It is led by the Awami League unemployed thugs who are easily manipulated. It is a joke to be compared to to the Arab Spring! The only thing it could have come close to the Arab Spring would have been to demand the end of two-party monopoly and strangelhold on our country. But my people are weak and corrupt for that to ever happen. I find my country a big comedy and I hope the global warming speeds up so that the country is under water by 2030. Good riddance to this good for nothing country. Kobir

  19. Ehsan

    Western civilization is weary of capital punishment. Western media is probably thinking it is doing a favor to Bangladesh.

    If the issue was segregation of politics and religion, that no party should be allowed to exploit any religion for political purposes, then you may have seen headlines like “Bangladesh follows USA in separating religion form state”.

    • JoelK

      Tahrir was initiated by the people. You don’t have to drag other events down to make yours more important.

  20. Misbah

    Why isn’t the world acknowledging Shahbagh?

    Because world media is well aware of the yellow journalism of Bangladesh and they know that this so called “Shahbag Revolution” is a creation of pro leftist media for the benefit of pro leftist govt. They also know how the govt is patronizing this movement against the opposition as well as how the govt is trying to suppress democratic rights of the opposition through violating all the norms of human rights. I am not saying western media is righteous, but they are not such a blind or bias as you.

  21. Muhammad Ahmedullah

    It is a long article but I would like to just make a few small points.

    May be Anushay should ask this question again and think a bit more deeply. Currently, a secularist party is in power in Bangladesh with more than two third majority in the parliament. Some people may wonder what this Shahbagh movement is for as it supports (clear from the dominant voice within Shahbagh) and is supported by the present government in power. Usually such a movement captures world attention if the people involved are fearlessly facing the power and coercive force of a long oppressive tyrant. They have moral energy and morality on their side and standing up against injustice and immorality. In this case the government tanks and bullets are not trying to shoot and disperse them, rather they are trying to bolster and use them for their propaganda and political purposes.

    The movement is demanding the hanging of alleged war criminals even before proven guilty through an internationally approved legal process that has credibility and respect from all sides involved and around the world. In the eyes of the world the ICT legal process is a complete sham and discredited. Probably some people around the world are laughing (those who don’t care) at our legal process and those who do care are perhaps concerned and worried about the situation. The movement is demanding the banning of a small party that only got about 5% of the vote in the last election. People may wonder if their support base is so small then why ban them and hang some of their leaders. Is not better to try win the argument by debating and taking the jamaatists on with words rather than try to destroy with the sword.

    In one place in the article Anushay says that Shahbagh is the “silent majority rising up against the use of religion to bully, the issuing of bewildering fatwas, the adoption of Arab dress and Arab ways, the blatant distortion of the past, the peculiar assault on our culture.” If religion based party is not in power then how can such a movement be a ‘rising up against the use of religion to bully’, for example. They could demand that the government enacts laws to outlaw ‘use of religion to bully’ and define this crime very carefully and clearly so that the law enforcers can apply them without abuse. The ‘rising up against …. the adoption of Arab dress and Arab ways’ is such a bizarre idea. Majority of the people of Bangladesh are Muslims and they have special love for the birth place of the Prophet and it’s natural for many to want to wear dress styles of Arabia. There is nothing wrong absolutely in this desire. This idea really is not bizarre but comes from a bankrupt emotion of blind nationalism, contradictory passion and fascistic mentality. Today in Bangladesh more people wear western dress and increasingly adopting western ways. There is nothing wrong in this either. I wear western dress, Bangladeshi longi and Punjabi and Indonesian batik shirts and I am proud of what I wear.

    Anushay also says that “Many experts even state that the gathering in the heart of the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka is a “social revolution akin to the French Revolution.””. I would like to hear the reasoning of such experts if they do really exist.
    Anushay also claims that Shahbagh is the ‘rising up against. … the blatant distortion of the past, the peculiar assault on our culture.” Now outsiders who have been following the proceedings can now judge for themselves who distorts the past. With regard to the idea of ‘peculiar assault on our culture’ I would like to point out that both sides have been involved in the fight against our cultures. One side against 800 years of Bengal Muslim culture and the other side against the idea of Bengali culture and its limited practice in Bangladesh and also against the increasing western culture in our lives.

    A bit more deep thinking may help Anushay find the answer to his question. Perhaps the world does not see any morality in this movement that demands a change in the court’s decision to hang someone who has been sentenced to life after being found guilty by a court that does not have credibility as non-political and impartial and transparent .

  22. Farida Majid

    At the core of what is happening in Shabagh Square in Dhaka right now, regarding the hanging of criminals of the 1971 War of Liberation of Bangladesh, is the issue of secularism. It is not a religious issue, though it is too darn easy to make it look like one. It is a Constitutional issue — that guarantees each individual citizen the freedom of religion. And that guarantee should also preclude an individual from being forced to a status of 2nd class citizen on account of his/her religion. In today’s India, despite its declared secular status in the Constitution, India has failed to stop creating the status of ‘2nd class citizen’ for the huge Muslim population. The 1972 Constitution of Bangladesh had made secularism as one of its 4 pillars, and had prohibited formation of political party based on religion or creed. In 1979 the Military dictator Ziaur Rahman brought in an illegal 5th Amendment and just about demolished the 1972 Constitution. The present Govt.’s 15th Amendment has not completely resuscitated secularism because the 8th Amendment with its State Religion of Islam is still not removed.

  23. Natasha

    I find it a little bit hypocritical. When you mentioned that there will be the rejection of Arab ways, why still we then highly adopt to Indian culture, American culture and all European erotic culture. We need to be rejecting the INDIAN ways and all the INDIAN customs. Do you know still women are burned when their husband dies. Women are beaten so as to obey their husbands. All these are foreign. Is that what Bangladeshi culture stands for. Our Bangladeshi culture is about loving ourselves and the world and it is highly tolerant. This is highly hypocritical. Also the most of the Arab ways also tend to be Bangladeshi ways. The world shall know that we embrace SECULARISM but lets not forget that Bangladesh is the world’s MOST RELIGIOUS COUNTRY. Hope the so-called secularists will be able to just understand what politics is and what religions is?

  24. Niaz Uddin

    You make an excellent point…the world’s major media outlets aren’t interested in pointing this out because it diverts from typical stereotypes of Muslim nations like Bangladesh. And more importantly, there is very little U.S. interest in this. Had this been a case in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran, surely the media would have fired up providing minute to minute coverage on this. There is very little to prove in terms of American political meddling because the U.S really isn’t vested in Bangladesh in any signifiacnt way, so they look the other way.

    But I hope that my birth nation achieves secularism and any fundamentalist affiliation is banned in the future.

  25. Mohammad Zaman

    “Whatever shape Shahbagh takes, it is clear that, in the words of the poet, Gil Scot Heron, this revolution will not be televised, because clearly the world is busy watching other channels”.

    These last few lines of your article sum it up. And here are few of the reasons world (I am thinking of the US) is watching other channels:

    1. TV channels are business and so they cater to public interest. Heroic rescue of a cat from the rooftop is far more interesting to general US population than the cry of thousands in some far away third world capital.

    2. “Tazreen” gets more coverage not because there is a business link between Tazreen and some of the most valuable US companies. And you know, despite its decline, US Labor still has a significant voice in the US society.

    3. We understand the hidden meaning of Shahbag, but to the world it is more like a bunch of youthful souls chanting a “death chant”. Liberal America is no fan of “Hanging”…and you know newsmen/women are mostly liberal.

    4. Why Tahrir commands more interest is simple to comprehend … this is a pivotal country where significant US interest is at stake. If this happens in Mumbai, you definitely will see more US coverage. Even if this happens in the some boondoggle like Myanmar (with tons of energy and proximity to china), we will see a larger scrambling of CNN etc.

    5. No need to blame the western media. They are busy watching other channels that are more interesting to them. If we need more coverage, we need to make ourselves more relevant to the world as a whole.

  26. Samia Zaman

    Thank you for your write up.I believe, at least in parts of the International Media – it is a deliberate decision. Underreporting is better than misreporting though – that is hapenning too! Please watch Bangladesh Channels! We are there 24 hours. I am from Ekattor.tv and we live stream. Watch us in the US or anywhere in the world. Samia Zaman. Ekatto.tv.

  27. Christian Prokopp

    Thank you for raising the issue Anushay. What I found very astounding is that the online movement resonated barley outside of Bangladesh and the UK (expat Bangladeshis). See the trend map on on http://www.semantikoz.com/blog/shahbag-outcry/ for #shahbag trend locations on Twitter. The mainstream media has slowly started reporting but the world in large seems to care very little about Shahbag.

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