Politics of Cultural Industries in the neo-Liberal Jomana…

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by rahnuma ahmed

A vicious cyclone had struck the night before. Dawn, stillness. A calm and eerie light. I tagged behind my older brothers as they ventured out, gazing in awe at a neighbouring house, its roof had flown off, while scenes of devastation lay around us with trees uprooted, branches severed from trunks, debris lying in the middle of the road. Fragments of a childhood memory.
As news of death and destruction poured into our home, so did groups of radio artists?singers, musicians?and many others, all working for the Chittagong radio station, like my father, a journalist, who worked in its news section.
By midday we were out in the streets, singers and musicians at the front, the rest behind, two rows of men, women and children, holding on to the corners and edges of a white billowing bedsheet. As the long procession wound down major roads, pedestrians turned around at the sound of singing, reaching for their pockets as we drew nearer. Women and girls peered at us, while boys were sent out, clutching notes, or a handful of coins (in those days, coins mattered). As the hours passed, the chador no longer remained taut; heavy with cash offerings, it sagged in the middle.
We trooped home. Instructed to separate coins from banknotes, we kids worked feverishly as my mother busied herself in rustling up some food for the sudden influx of guests. Neatly laid out piles of banknotes, tottering columns of coins. My father and his colleagues counted, double-checked. The money was sent off to aid cyclone victims. It was 1965. It was Chittagong. We belonged to Pakistan.
The central seat of power, Islamabad, was far away. It was (still) possible for state functionaries and artists to come together. To take to the streeets spontaneously, aroused by community feelings of helping people in distress. An event that was not orchestrated. No heads had rolled. Had cameras clicked? No, not that I remember.
Fast forward to now. Natural disasters. Large cheques are donated to the prime minister’s relief fund. Banks. Multinational mobile phone companies. Business associations. Civil society. NGOs. Smaller cheques too, a day’s salary of government employees, of private firms. An extended hand offers a cheque, as the other accepts, both faces turn toward the TV cameras, toward the photojournalists. The state-capital-media nexus, although riven by internal disagreements and rivalries, work collectively to manufacture national interests. A far cry from earlier times when broadcasting and telecasting space was controlled by state-owned Radio Bangladesh and Bangladesh Television, when 5-10 regular privately owned dailies, and a film industry, not known for signs of originality, was all that there was. Before things began changing in the 1990s.
Market reforms however, began earlier, Ziaur Rahman (1975-1981) and Hussain Mohammad Ershad (1981-1990) used them as instruments to build and maintain political coalitions, particularly with traders and industrialists. Economic liberalisation programmes, traded off for garnering the political support of business elites, did not, as Fahimul Quadir points out, contribute to the micromanagement of the economy, nor to the advancement of human development goals.?Instead, they allowed big business to emerge as a major player in national decision-making. Not unsurprisingly, contradictions emerged?it adversely affected the state’s ability to enforce contracts, to develop a mechanism for redistributing assets?but these were ignored by the military rulers as the issue of gaining legitimacy among civilian sectors was far more pressing.
Despite General Ershad being ousted from power in 1990, subsequent regimes, led by Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, treaded earlier paths, smoothed by undisclosed contributions to party coffers, far more important than improving the living standards of the majority. These patterns are similar to those in Philippines, president Marcos, US ally and long-time friend, was deposed in 1986 through a popular uprising, but despite his ouster, many, if not most, of the “fundamental relations of exploitation,” remained intact. Democracy was “nominally restored” while the masses continued to suffer, writes Jonathan Beller; prostituted Filipinas became overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), radicals continued to be murdered, giving lie to a particular fantasy about the importance of individuals (autocrats are deposed, but the system does not get dismantled).
Ceaseless political party bickering which has characterised politics in Bangladesh for the last two decades, has benefited media corporatisation’s ideology, “impartial” and “neutral” news journalism has been redefined as that which is independent of political party allegiances, distracting attention from the fact that corporate media works to further corporate interests, to create a consumer culture, to advance the interests of market forces (Fahmidul Huq). Not surprisingly, there have been other contradictions as well. As Zeenat Huda Wahid notes, Khaleda Zia’s new media policy in 1992 initiated satellite television, leading to scores of Indian channels being available to Bangladeshi viewers. Despite, Huda argues, the BNP government’s crafting of a religio-territorial identity, one that was portrayed as resistant to Indian domination. ?Or, as Meghna Guhathakurta writes (1997), Sonar Bangla, the rallying cry of the liberation struggle?evoking images of classlessness, prosperity, peaceful agrarian relations?was not only abandoned by the Awami League post-1971, it has become “fossilised.” Sheikh Hasina’s government (1996-2001; 2008 onwards) has not veered from liberalisation policies initiated by previous governments, including those which are her sworn enemies, the BNP-Jamaat alliance that ruled the nation (2001-2007); the present government’s proclamation of Muktijuddher pokkher shokti is shorn of Shonar Bangla ideals, as fundamental relations of exploitation remain. Intact.
The culture industry’s victory lies in two things, “what it destroys as truth outside its sphere can be reproduced indefinitely within it as lies.” We can no longer simply talk of control, writes Sefik Seki Tatlic, we must talk of the nature of the interaction between one who is being controlled and the one who controls.?Of how the one that is “controlled” is asking for more control over him/herself while expecting to be compensated by a surplus of freedom to satisfy trivial needs and wishes. Of how the fulfillment of trivial needs is declared as freedom. Readers, remember, RC Cola, freedom of choice? Or, remember Grameen Phone’s current slogan, Stay Close, invoking family ideology (security, warmth, intimacy, support, romance) to further corporate profits (Stay Close so that we can fleece you?). Consumer freedom, Tatlic reminds us, implies as well the freedom to choose not to be engaged in any kind of socially sensible or politically articulated struggle. Very true in the case of Bangladesh, for one does not see media celebrities, singers, actors and actresses, writers, playwrights, intellectuals, advertising industry’s geniuses etc etc, those who froth at the mouth at the slightest mention of 1971, lend support to any of the pro-people struggles and movements current in Bangladesh, two of the foremost being the garments workers struggles for living wages and safe and secure workplaces, ?and, the Phulbari peoples struggle to not be uprooted from their land and livelihood, to resist the impoverishment which multinationals, and the government (both present and past) have destined for them.?Life is so much more comfortable for the ruling class and its functionaries when Muktijuddho gets divested of Shonar Bangla ideals, when fundamental relations of exploitation can, and do, remain intact.

Telenor and Grameen Telecom have shown how a for-profit company can work with a non-profit one for the greater social good. Outlook India, Dec 26, 2009.

The category of the “spectacle” is the medialogical paradigm, says Beller, as the accumulation of capital becomes an image (think of all the commodities advertised), and again, as “the diplomatic presentation of hierarchical society to itself.” The spectacle is not merely a relation, but a relation of production for it produces consciousness. We must put language on images, he writes. Excited by Beller’s theory, I return to YouTube to watch Shahrukh Khan’s performance in Dhaka (I missed when it was shown live on TV), where Dhaka crowds, who had paid exorbitant amounts to purchase tickets, were said to have been bowled-over by the mega-star’s performance.?A few voices have expressed their disgust at the “vulgarism,” ?at the “obscenity,” at his cultural arrogance, his condescending attitude toward the Bangladeshi audience, at his oft-repeated use of a “slang” word (not written by those who felt offended, I had to go to great trouble to discover it). Shala! Now, shala is a kinship term, used by the husband to indicate his wife’s brother. Gentrification has led to `shaylok‘ being preferred over shala, and I have yet to find a Bengali able to explain why it offends. The answer lies in its underlying message, embedded in patriarchal power relations, deeply sexualised, “I f..k your sister.”
Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan at the Dhaka army stadium, dancing with Russian models, at the all sold King Khan Live in Dhaka show, December 12, 2010.

The diplomatic presentation of hierarchical relations between India and Bangladesh as the BSF, the Indian border forces, kill Bangladeshis randomly, systematically? The King Khan tamasha made us forget the truth that lies outside the sphere crafted by the culture industries. Shala is a patriarchal lie, it must be dismantled.
Published in New Age, Monday February 21, 2011

Fraud Band

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Salma, a housewife in Norshingdi, receives a call from her husband, a migrant labourer in Singapore. Rural women in Bangladesh have set up small mobile phone businesses which now allow easier communication in villages.
Salma, a housewife in Norshingdi, receives a call from her husband, a migrant labourer in Singapore. Rural women in Bangladesh have set up small mobile phone businesses which now allow easier communication in villages. Norshingdi. Bangladesh ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

She was mildly self conscious when I asked to photograph her, but a smile soon spread over her face. The telephone had connected her to her husband, a worker in Singapore. Salma, a woman in a village near Sonargaon in Bangladesh, had recently learnt to use the village mobile telephone, and it had transformed her life. Had this been where the story ended, it would have been a simple affair with a happy ending. Perhaps for Salma, it wasn’t significant that the technology that allowed her access to her husband, was one of many that allowed people in distant lands to tap her call, to add her to a database, to classify her as yet another consumer of products or a source of cheap labour for electronic sweatshops. For many others however, the wealth of new opportunities provided by globalisation, merely represents a wider net for global exploitation.

There are now many Salmas, and on the 14th August 2003, Grameen’s subscriber base reached a million. Greater than the total subscriber base of the government land lines. ISPs too pop up in many street corners, and though Internet telephony (VOIP) is illegal here, the service is openly advertised in convenience stores. In between the tangled wires on every street pole in Dhaka is the attractive advert: broadband, 24 hours, only taka 1000 per month. That’s about US $ 17. Not a bad price for broadband, until you realise that the definitions differ. The bandwidth on offer is 1K/sec, and breaks every time a storm, or a competing ISP cuts the cable, or when electricity fails (generally 2-3 times a day) at any of the relay nodes. No wonder many users call it ‘fraud band’.

The VSAT on our rooftop delivers 512K connectivity. A respectable speed, except that we expect to have 200 dialup customers, another 200 leased line clients, and maybe a few smaller ISPs running Voice over IP (VOIP) services and the ‘broadband connections’ using that bandwidth. That is the only way we can pay for the US $ 3500/month for staying connected. Plus a $ 3,500/64 KB/year license fee. An average user in the west would pay around 20 – 30 Euro for comparable access.

Even getting here hasn’t been easy. In 1994, when we setup Bangladesh’s first email service, we were using off-line email. Our server, a 286, and just one telephone line which we used for voice, fax and email, provided email connectivity to the world bank, UNICEF, major universities, and several organisations that are now ISPs. Since then the Net has been both a boon and a bane. It has been our lifeline to the rest of the world, and it has been the area where the government has attacked us the hardest. On the 27th of February 2001, we setup the country’s first human rights portal www.banglarights.net. The government promptly closed down all our telephone lines the next day. It took a lot of protests, to get the local lines back, but even now, we cannot make an international telephone call. Not using the government lines anyway. However, our VSAT on the rooftop, allows us an access that the government will not be able to stop simply by pulling a plug somewhere. Our e-newsletter reaches a carefully targeted 5000 worldwide, and a note saying the government was getting heavy would be immediately followed by a string of protests from fairly
influential organisations worldwide. So we walk a fine line, and continue to be subversive. On the other hand, the government’s lack of knowledge can be used (and abused) to find ways round the system. The import of the satellite phone by the BBC, which connects through Inmarsat, was allowed by the Bangladesh Telephone and Regulatory Council (BTRC), on condition that it not be used to make calls outside the country!

For the majority world, education offers the most effective route to take advantage of the globalisation juggernaut. And it is here, that the technological opportunities and the networking that accompanies globalisation, can be best utilized. Interestingly, the role models that seem to have worked best are those developed in the south, and it is only when the asymmetrical flow of information, which flows essentially from north to south, is replaced by south-south movement, that we will begin to turn the tide around. We started using the Net for education fairly early on, but activism and survival have really been the main driving forces behind our relationship with new media. An incidence of rape at a local university was being hushed up, and it was our presence on the Net that forced the establishment to arrange an investigation. The rapists got off with mild punishment, but it was the first time they had been challenged, and it has changed campus dynamics. It was our fragile network that allowed us to contact legal help groups and other activist organizations, when Taslima Nasreen, the feminist writer was under threat. It was the Net that kept us relevant.

The most interesting shifts have been in the area of media. With mainstream media coming under increasing restrictions, and the cost of publishing soaring, media activists have been taking to the Net to get their ideas across. A whole set of blogs, newsletters, opinion forums and activist sites have sprung up. Apart from providing an alternative space where points of view not palatable to mainstream media can be aired, these Net spaces have also become meeting grounds for the diaspora, who have until now felt excluded from the development process, and numerous archives abound providing alternative information sources.

The main struggle however remains between activists trying to make full use of a vibrant media, and a skeptical, fossilized and generally corrupt bureaucracy, that is deeply suspicious of what this media might do. It is reminiscent of the first time Bangladesh rejected the fibre optic cable that went along the Bay of Bengal, since the information minister was scared that ‘state secrets’ would be leaked out. A new rule in Bangladesh prevents CDs from being sent overseas, while the same data sent through the Net can be sent legally.

Our journalism school is trying to develop on-line learning modules, and we are hoping to start up a regional centre for investigative journalism that will rely heavily on new media for its success. There are interesting political implications too. Our latest plans for setting up a ‘public accountability site’, promises to be the most problematic for the establishment. The idea is to setup kiosks in poor neighbourhoods, which will provide information relevant to the locality that they can use to determine how public funds and other resources are being used. The government has promised such transparency, and we want to hold them to it. But when the public begins to sense how their resources are used, the trouble will start, and those who made the ministerial speeches, will be the first to shut us down. That too is a fight that we need to win, and we’ll use new media as our primary tool.
Presented at the World Summit on Information Society. Geneva. 9th December 2003