There were at least 200 headlines that failed to meet reporting or journalistic standards in that paper in those two years. People are only talking about two – a particular one about Sheikh Hasina, and possibly one on Khaleda Zia and the latter’s former personal aide Mosaddek Ali Falu.
There are hundreds of other headlines that could be questioned in the 25 years of The Daily Star. Questions can be raised about stories published as well as those not published or covered at all. The paper is just one of many Bangladeshi media outlets that do not practise what they preach.
What Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed Joy, the aggrieved son of Sheikh Hasina, possibly referred to when he took to Facebook on 4 February, was the “civil society” campaign – run by the foreign-funded CPD, The Daily Star, Prothom Alo and Channel i – in the run up to the 1/11 takeover in 2007. Meritocracy was all that mattered, they propagated, and “depoliticisation” was the solution.
The campaign and the comment pieces on the front pages in the two papers would have been forgotten footnotes of media and political history if the military-installed caretakers had not taken over and done what they did at the behest of a section of the army and its rogue officers then dominating the intelligence outfit DGFI.
Joy argued, in his own way, that the campaign and the subsequent DGFI-orchestrated media onslaught against the likes of his mother led to their detention, harassment, trial on false charges and solitary confinement.
One would obviously agree with editor Mahfuz Anam that The Daily Star was not alone in publishing the badly-written motivated reports of the DGFI in 2007-8. Its sister concern, Prothom Alo, did the same and even went much further to prepare the ground for any planned offensive from the so-called joint forces that operated mostly under the command of the DGFI. One would remember reading stories – often carried simultaneously by several newspapers – about politicians and business people who would be prosecuted, eventually unsuccessfully, because of lack of professional skills on the part of the prosecutors or because there was simply no merit in the cases framed.
The language and the flaws and the frail structure of those news stories would give all the clues to any experienced media professional about the source of those “stories”. The newspapers did not even try to make those reports look credible. Not even The Daily Star, then and now the most-circulated English broadsheet in Bangladesh.
On one occasion, one particular former minister of the immediate past BNP government was the target. Prothom Alo devoted its entire front page to stories relating to alleged corruption of that politician. Unlike many of his peers, the politician, who died in July 2010, was never detained or prosecuted but fell out with his party leader because he had to turn “reformist” or else he would be prosecuted.
Those were difficult days for a new news outfit, suddenly shot into prominence with 24/7 updates in two languages reaching millions in Bangladesh and beyond. The vow that no story would be published without each piece of information being attributed to a named source saved bdnews24.com. DGFI operatives wouldn’t be willing to be quoted for any such story, and the unsigned reports on plain paper made no sense for the brave professionals then part of the reporting team as well as the newsroom of Bangladesh’s first Internet-only news outlet.
The first list of 50 “corrupt” people reached the newsroom of bdnews24.com faster than any other on 18 February 2007, several of the senior reporter-colleagues assured. (I remember being surrounded by my colleagues in front of our offices at Dhanmondi Road 27. They didn’t have a convincing argument, they were told.)
No letterhead and no signature and no cover letter, so the pace of delivery failed to make the desired impact. The list was not published by bdnews24.com immediately, while all other news outlets seized the “opportunity”.
These news outlets did not name a source of the crucial information in the banner-headlined story that tainted those 50 as corrupt. They did not even bother to describe the 50 as suspects.
bdnews24.com eventually published the story – the following day, roughly 18 hours after it had obtained the list. The Cabinet member in charge of the home ministry and head of the practically army-run National Committee on Corruption and Serious Crimes confirmed that the list published in the newspaper on the day had indeed been released by the authorities. The bdnews24.com story called them “suspects”, which then led other media outlets to use the word while publishing the subsequent two lists.
Tough journalistic calls had to be made in those days. On one occasion, one of the bdnews24.com news editors at the time received 26 calls from a DGFI colonel to remove a story – a Sheikh Hasina interview aired on the BBC. No other news outlet carried the item. “This is the 26th call I have received from that colonel, what do I do now?” He kept doing what he did best – writing news copies.
Prothom Alo fell into its own trap when it had to publish the third list that included, ironically, its owner Latifur Rahman, who also majority-owned The Daily Star. “Had they only followed the basics of reporting …,” the otherwise untainted businessman Latifur Rahman was reminded by a journalist of bdnews24.com at the formal launch of the Motijheel offices of ABC Radio which he had just acquired.
But what really did motivate Mahfuz Anam (or for that matter Prothom Alo) to do what he did? Was he really acting under duress? It was clear many of the others were. But were Anam or Prothom Alo?
The answers are known to anyone who followed the developments at the time. But history needs recounting for those who were, say, 13 or 14 at the time and are now in their early 20s.
An important question is: Did Mahfuz Anam or Star do it because others were doing it too?
Were they following or leading? What were the compulsions for Star or Mahfuz Anam or others who did it?
Then again, the others have not sought to brand their years of work as “… years of journalism without fear or favour”.
If Mahfuz Anam was fearless, then he was doing the army-run caretaker administration a favour. Possible, because he had advocated such a government run by those from outside the regular, legitimate political process.
“This is our government … we brought this government … so you have to listen to what we say” became the most famous quote attributed to Mahfuz Anam. The statement purportedly made at a meeting with the interim Cabinet member responsible for the information ministry which was attended by dozens of editors has been referred to time and again. One senior journalist, Reazuddin Ahmed, when asked by a live TV talk-show host on 10 Feb, refused to confirm the incident saying he was not present at that meeting. Another senior journalist, Amanullah Kabir, the founding editor of Amar Desh, immediately phoned in to tell the live TV viewers that he was, along with the live TV show participant Reazuddin Ahmed, present and that such a statement had indeed been made by Mahfuz Anam. The senior journalist on the live show did not protest his long-time comrade in the trade union movement.
Coming back to the fear-or-favour question, if Mahfuz Anam was not doing them a favour, then he was doing it out of fear. What was he afraid of? He had money; Star was the most cash-rich paper at the time, with a much bigger kitty than its sister Prothom Alo because of its very low circulation but almost equal advertisement revenue to that of its vernacular sister. It is a fact that all other outlets were suffering a cash crisis and failing to pay their staff. There were papers and TV stations where journalists did not get paid for months.
One would recognise the fact that Mahfuz Anam was not acting under any duress during the 2007-8 army-caretaker regime. He backed it, and so did many others. He has widely been credited with being one of those who had worked towards creating a professional-politician-free political establishment in Bangladesh. Was it a crime? This country, strangely though, has never been unanimous on the issue. Some members of civil society believe the urban elite with some academic or commercial or bureaucratic credentials are better poised to run the affairs of the state. He was one of those and hence supported the likes of Muhammad Yunus. There are of course those that still keep faith in the “half-educated” politicians made accountable through perennially-flawed balloting in a country where fairness means equal opportunity to rig the elections.
Mahfuz Anam can be forgiven for various reasons for what he did.
The Daily Star editor was only being overly ambitious, and clearly saw an opportunity to be a major player in politics. The only problem was that he, along with his civil society comrades, was trying to cut corners to gain political power and in the process maligning senior politicians who could stand in their way. His role in the botched attempt by Muhammad Yunus to float a political party was well-known. Many journalists even knew who hosted the private meetings and what was discussed. And public meetings of that planned political party had the blessings of the army-run administration while all other political actors – including the two major parties and their top leaders – were either officially banned from having any or detained.
Arguments have been aplenty in favour of Mahfuz Anam’s pursuit of political objectives; there are instances galore in the nation’s history, his supporters say. Not all precedents are good enough to be followed, detractors have argued.
There are many, going by the number of newspaper comment pieces, that insist on not blaming Mahfuz Anam for what he did. Because he did it all in good faith. He believed it was the right thing to do under those circumstances. The only problem was he did not know or realise it was not the job of a journalist. He realised that only when he was faced with questions.
Mahfuz Anam must be forgiven, for he had had very little experience in journalism – absolutely no experience in news-gathering and no time spent in the newsroom let alone managing it. Let’s remind everyone of that famous statement by CP Scott, the much-revered editor of The Guardian: Comment, which the Star editor clearly enjoys writing, is free, but facts are sacred.
The editor is being profusely praised for admitting his “mistakes”. Few are pointing out he did so only when he was presented with evidence beyond any reasonable doubt. Until the last second during the ATN News talk-show drama, he had sought to deny any wrongdoing.
The argument that did the rounds immediately after he had come under fire for the “admission” was ‘at least he has admitted it; others haven’t’.
Then three more questions have been raised: 1) why after so many years; 2) why others not being subjected to the same kind of questioning or 3) why others not being named.
The counter-argument has been very simple: the others have not made the mistake he has — bragging about “journalism without fear or favour” and then appearing on a talk show to discuss that ahead of his anniversary celebrations. The third question was answered on the show by Mahfuz Anam himself – everyone did it. Seconds later, he admitted “not everyone”.
Adding to all the hoopla about Mahfuz Anam is the well-known jealousy among some media professionals who believe he got more than he deserved. Anam is not the only one without the required skills or qualifications to have reached the pinnacle of positions in a particular trade. This country is full of such examples. So why blame Mahfuz Anam alone?
He has done very well – after the sad and untimely demise of founding editor S M Ali – steering the paper to top position as competitors perished one by one. Of course the competitors helped; they were busy shooting themselves in the foot.
One is right arguing that he hasn’t been able to do much to promote good journalism but has quite ably kept afloat Bangladesh’s only English newspaper of some standing. More importantly, for its investors at least, he has made more money than any other newspaper since it broke even around the late 1990s.
With the advent of the New Media, the print edition of The Daily Star is under pressure. And it must muster all the support it can. The discussion must not be about individuals here; the concern should be about the institution. Let’s try to save this paper.
We do not support the way he is being harassed or intimidated. The number of cases is mind-boggling and the amount of money being sought in damages staggering. Let this not turn into a personal or political vendetta.
Some tend to suggest that slaughtering one goat will not solve the problem. The counterpoint is, if one goat is found infected with the deadly virus, the goat needs to be taken care of; the cull takes place when all others are identified.
We cannot ask the individuals who have gone to courts around the country to stop suing Anam or asking for damages, but if there’s a government hand in it – as alleged or perceived by some people – we ask the government to put a stop to all this.
We ask the politicians in power to be more magnanimous and not be vengeful. An eye for an eye is not the right approach here. They should be able to forgive and forget, and move on.
Let his readers punish him, or his employers assess him. We ask the management of The Daily Star to introduce a proper editorial process that the paper clearly lacks; that would be one major long-term institutional step towards avoiding any such “mistakes” in future. We must save this newspaper.
Some people have tried to instill a sense of guilt in us because we brought the issue to the public domain. A colleague of mine asked him those difficult questions on 3 February when the show host raised the topic and the Star editor made a faux pas by admitting that those stories were fed by DGFI. And then we did a story because of the magnitude of what he said in public, on live TV, for the first time, although many of us had known before that he and many others did all that. And to those that seek to portray us as the ones out to destroy an individual, who happens to be Mahfuz Anam in this particular case, we only say this: There was nothing written against him as a result of investigative journalism, which some say is a big favour done to him and his spouse – the latter runs something called Manusher Jonno Foundation.
If we all followed that SPJ code of ethics that emphasised media organisations playing a watchdog role when it came to media malpractice, things would have been a lot better for all of us in the media.
But for now, all said and done, we stand by Mahfuz Anam.