Madame Prime Minister, tear down that firewall

Published : 31 March 2013, 11:51 AM
Updated : 31 March 2013, 11:51 AM

First of all, I want to start with an apology to bdnews24.com.

During our own American Apartheid, when we were slaughtering natives and driving the rest into infertile, restricted areas, sometimes a Native would go "off the reservation", meaning he would wander outside the boundaries of what was expected.

It has come to mean straying from the expected or the prescribed path.

Even in the US, I go off the reservation all the time.

Sometimes a simple cultural misunderstanding could cause the Native to wander. I think this may be the case with me. This article goes "off the reservation".

It all started a month ago. An article I wrote a month ago, a commentator who called him/herself "hey there!" offered this comment:
"As if the American people truly comprehend what Justice really is, with its government continually profiling, trapping and arresting people without warrants; and then torturing, maiming, assassinating, or imprisoning them for life with Mickey-Mouse trials, with the power of Patriot Acts and National Defense Authorization Acts, is the kind of rule of law and justice everyone else should emulate!"

Hey there! went on to suggest, "Please help yourself with some foramlin-laden meals while you're in Dhaka, and please don't let the door hit you hard on your way out! Thank you!"

Ok, it was a rant, but it was an articulate, well thought-out rant, that had all the elements of good writing: a strong voice, a strong opinion, and a dash of humor. Sure, it took aim at me, but that's exactly what any commentator hopes for: a lively debate. I thought of the hours of study it took to achieve a level of sophistication that would allow "Hey there!" to write so well in a non-native language. "Hey there! was standing toe to toe with me, trading blow for blow, matching my own abilities and intellect in my own language.

And I can't even say "Hey there!" in Bangla.

While I love when people agree with me, I also relish the disagreement. The world is too full of readers, newsmen, and publishers who "thumb down" meaningful thoughts and events because they strike the reader as difficult to digest, disagreeable, or not entertaining enough. I wanted to encourage such active dialog, at least in the Comments section of my articles.

During a December event in New York City, I had the opportunity to talk to Charles Duhigg, a brilliant investigative reporter. I told him of the murder and torture of thousands of Bangladeshis at the hands of Indian border guards. I asked him why this wasn't being published in his paper, The New York Times. Duhigg told me that editors decide whether or not to publish articles based on what New Yorkers are willing to read. He told me that if I wanted to investigate further I should contact the editor in charge of the South Asian Bureau.

I did some further investigation. The NY Times, in fact had published a piece on August 21, 2012 illustrating how easy it was to cross the border between India and Bangladesh but had neglected to mention the killings.

What was revealing about that article was who was blacking out the darker news. The reporter indicated that in order to get a visa to enter the country, he had to assure the Minister of Press and Information that he would not report from Bangladesh.

Then, all of a sudden in 2013, the New York Times was covering Bangladesh — the garment factory fire.

And then they covered Shahbagh.

If you look at a copy of the February 16th, 2013 paper, you'll see that Jim Yardley, South Asian Bureau chief of the New York Times, details the events surrounding Shahbagh. Over the last 30 days, dozens of articles have appeared in the New York Times.

The Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post have also covered Shabagh.

I didn't expect this level of attention. But then again, the Bangladeshi government doesn't have a problem with the Shahbagh movement. So reporters risked nothing to cover it. It's not hard to get past the censorship via the internet, but reporters need to confirm sources, and this is difficult business for a foreign journalist, as newspaper staffs shrink and readers are fed the high fructose corn syrup news of celebrities and sports scandals.
Why can't New Yorkers relate to important world events? I mean almost every New Yorker is the child or grandchild of someone displaced by upheaval stirred up far from Manhattan's shores. Wouldn't these children of history's shipwrecks be the least bit interested in what the next tide might bring? Of all the people on earth, who could better comprehend that the sighs of the rickshaw-puller in Bangladesh stir breezes that lift the toupee on the chubby head of the Wall Street CEO?

During the Cold War, policy czar George Kennan once outlined the American position: "We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population . . . . Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity . . . . To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction."

The American public is propagandized by blackout. We are encouraged to reject our immigrant roots and content ourselves in knowing that anything important that is going on the world must be going on in English. We still control an enormous portion of the world's wealth, and if the American public started getting sentimental about what was going on in Bangladesh, how would we maintain our position of privilege? The newspapers here opiate the public on "pop"— tales of pregnant princesses, naughty clergy, and the meaningless lives of movie stars. Just as Kennan intended during the Cold War, the media has shifted American attention away from any natural affinity we might feel for Bangladesh.

Meanwhile, any government can manipulate the US press to publish only what it sees fit to reveal. It is a form of "dumb barter" that keeps the reality of Bangladesh to be presented, from both sides, to the American public. On the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index, in 2013, Bangladesh dropped from 129th place to 144th place in the world (India is in 140th place).

When I found out that the Ministry of Information charges an enormous fee to start an online news portal, I had to go "off the reservation". As an American, this just didn't sit squarely with me. I mean, in America, I can write what I want, and rake in ad revenue (Of course, one of the differences is that there in Bangladesh, people actually read and respond, even when no shades of grey are involved). Requiring people who want to start online news portals for profit to pay huge fees restricts such means of expression (and profit) to only the upper eschelons of society.

In a way, bdnews24.com is one of these organizations, and that's where I go off the reservation. I believe that the quality of this online newspaper could (and does) stand up to all competitors, and I am proud to be a small part of this great endeavor. However, because of many restrictions, and the exorbitant fee that the Ministry of Information charges to create an online news portal, the news coming out of Bangladesh represents a very small cross-section of popular opinion, and makes the dissenting voices, like Hey There!'s (and yours) in the Comments section all the more important.

See, your dissenting voice at the end of these opinion pieces is the only way that I can "hear" from across the world, the real voice of the people.

At least the people with internet access, and the ability to speak English.

To me, the commentary is like gold.
In this regard, bdnews24.com has been courageous. I don't always say the smartest things, but I have never been censored.

Even when I go off the reservation.

* * *
On the very day the UN celebrated International Mother Language day, my university voted to diminish the foreign language requirement for a degree in International Business from two years to just one. The vote was nearly unanimous. Only one faculty member, from the Foreign Languages department, objected. To paraphrase one of the decision-makers, "I've been in the boardroom. English is the language of the boardroom".

That may be, but English is not the language of emerging democracy, or fair trade. It is not the language of the street entrepreneur, or of countless exciting blogs and publications the world over. It was not the language of Ahmed Rajib Haider.

American "suits", be they reporters, academics or businessmen, are terrible at anticipating stories that have the bad manners to break in the vernacular. And if the story cannot be squeezed into the prevailing narrative, they will simply ignore it.

Here's the recipe to get NO media coverage in Bangladesh- Take a government which wants to limit the internet, including shutting down Facebook pages. Have that government represent a nation which speaks an uncommonly taught language. Now post what's left on the internet.

Send this information to a nation who can justify ethnocentric views on world language even at liberal institutions like universities. Add a sixty-year US policy of "dispersing the sentimentality of world-benefaction".

Following that recipe, you pretty much get exactly coverage of Bangladesh we see today.

So, while the attention of the world is still focused on you, If I may make one humble appeal to those who have been energized by the Shahbagh movement, it is this:

This is the moment of change, guys. This means listening to dissenting views. While you are seen, while you are heard, please call for an end to censorship, fees and limits on the creative works, news, and other information that the world can see. Then, you will see a burst of global interest.

In order to let your light shine before mankind, you have to allow your opponent's "darkness" shine as well. Then the world will see your true colors, and the press will beat a path to your door.

After all, the truth fears no dissent.

After two years of writing, and reading your comments, both negative and positive, one thing this American knows for sure, Bangladesh…

…to know you is to love you.

And Hey There? If you're out there? That includes you.
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Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called "You Think What You Think And I'll Think What I Know." He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, "Learning Little Hawk's Way of Storytelling", teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher