For the government, by the government

My assistant Irfan just informed me that my permanent accreditation as a journalist was not being given, as I had asked awkward questions to the advisor during the Musee Guimet affair, The assumption that a journalist’s job is to ask ‘safe questions’ is a stark reminder of the perceived role of journalists by governments. The following piece was written exactly seventeen years ago. This ironic reminder of ‘consistency’ in certain sectors is worrying. We had worried about possible repercussions and had discussed strategies had we come under attack. As it turned out, the letter, published in leading newspapers, was simply ignored. They have other ways of controlling us.
An open letter to the honourable
Prime Minister
The People’s Republic of
Bangladesh
The 27th March 1992
Dear Prime Minister,
As a citizen of a nation with a democratically elected parliament, I write with some concern my feelings regarding the appropriation of Bangladesh Television by the government. A media which is paid for and rightfully belongs to the people.
After the fall of the Ershad regime one had expected to see a change in the traditional propaganda that had been passed as news. Last night’s news was a blatant and sad reminder that nothing had changed.
What happened at Suhrwardy Uddayan on the 26th of March 1992, might not have been in the interest of the ruling party. There may be a debate over the validity of the trial, but it is surely impossible to deny that probably the largest public gathering since 1972 had taken place. For a democratically elected government it is shamefully hypocritical to deny that the people had made a statement.
The news last night mentioned the parade in the morning, a small march past in Ghazipur, violence in distant lands, even the man of the match in a game of cricket. Nowhere was there a reference to the fact that almost a million people had gathered that morning for a public trial of a war criminal.
At a time when we are trying past perpetrators for misappropriation of public funds, making people accountable, stealing the voice of an entire nation is a crime beyond redemption. Whatever we may call what television is showing today, it is certainly not “The Whole Truth”.
It is a trying time in our land. The problems are many and the resources slender. What we need most now is national unity. That can surely not be achieved by alienating the people, by withdrawing trust.
The national television is a valuable resource. It can teach, it can inform, it can entertain. Never was it intended to be used as a propaganda machine. It is a powerful medium, and through objective journalism can play a vital role in a nation struggling to rebuild. By shredding away the last vestiges of plausibility it has been reduced to a shameful mockery. Even the truth will now be questioned.
I believe that it is a time for reconstruction, and that the new government must be given a chance. I believe it is time to forget our differences and rally together to rebuild this land that so many have sacrificed for. For that to happen there must first be honesty, and a government of the people must never turn against the people. The government must establish its credibility. For people to believe, the truth must be spoken. Then only can there be a real dialogue.
For this nation to succeed we need a responsible government, a responsible opposition and a responsible citizen. Surely the government can lead by example.
This nation is in economic shambles, millions live below the poverty line, today hunger is our greatest enemy, yet we mark our day of independence with a vulgar, and quite meaningless show of military strength. We trade schools and hospitals for guns and bullets, guns that have too often in the past been turned against us. On our day of independence we forget to once mention the father of the nation, instead we celebrate the weapons that have nurtured autocrats.
The VIP’s from their exclusive seats watch their latest expensive toys, bought with the taxpayer’s money. While the national TV is turned into a home video set. It is true that there are members of the public who like watching the show, that there are little kids who wonder in amazement, but tell them prime minister, how many kilos of rice that aircraft is worth, how much was spent for your expensive seating, you know too well what they will choose.
There is still time, give back to the people what you have wrongfully taken. Let the truth be known, and in time the people will forgive you. Develop the trust that has been torn asunder and the people will rally with you. It is the people who brought you into power, do not turn their strength against you. Do not forget the harrowing nights in March ’71. Do not forget the streets you walked in December ’90. Do not forget the millions who walked with you.
This struggling nation expects a lot from its leader. It needs your strength, your courage, your sensitivity. Above all it needs your sincerity.
Do not disappoint us.
I wish you well.
Bangladesh Zindabad.

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.” His recent book “The Tide Will Turn” published by Steidl in 2020, is listed in New York Time’s ‘Best Art Books of 2020’. Alam received the “International Press Freedom Award” for 2020 from ‘The Committee to Protect Journalists’.

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