The foundation of Prothom Alo started at Ajker Kagoj, with its doors and windows being crafted at Bhorer Kagoj. And then 21 years ago Prothom Alo emerged. It had a roof and it expanded. The newspaper became a solid structure. In the meantime Ajker Kagoj shut down and Bhorer Kagoj faltered. But Prothom Alo grew from strength to strength, leaving all other papers behind. How did it do this?
Prothom Alo had the courage to tell the truth, a quality that had made Ajker Kagoj so popular. It had a team of bold young newspersons, cartoonists, columnists, feature writers. There was talent and hard work. Many are no longer with Prothom Alo now, but they had enthusiasm , they were eager to reveal the truth, they held the state and the government accountable before the readers, they wanted something new. The people saw their demands, their aspirations within the pages of Prothom Alo.
In the meantime, hard times befell the paper, but it fought back and managed to overcome all odds. In fact, dealing with the odds has now become a regular practice. One of the main pressures faced by the newspaper from the very beginning is the ire of the successive governments, sometimes extreme and sometimes a bit less.
Another obstacle is the lack of freedom of expression, which is a detriment to an outspoken critic. This hangs above the newspaper like Damocles’ sword.
Then the digital wave that hit Bangladesh posed as a challenge to the print media. If you get fresh news every hour, who will wait for the next day to read all about in the newspapers, pace up and down for the hawker to arrive, as many did back in the day, perhaps not even a decade ago?
Prothom Alo managed to turn this digital onslaught into an asset and now millions of readers read the paper online. They can post their comments too, expressing their anger at the government and at the political parties and more. With the lack of meaningful debate in the parliament, these comments by the readers keep discussion and debate alive to an extent.
But these changes have affected Prothom Alo and it has had to become market-oriented. The liberal and idealistic stance of the paper at the beginning had taken on a somewhat corporate character. But perhaps this was inevitable, given the spread of capitalism and consumerism. I have seen this corporate character in India’s Anandabazar, Statesman and others dailies. I have even seen this in the New York Times which has begun to print advertisements on its first page, something which t had never done before.
I use to write columns occasionally for Ajker Kagoj and have been with Prothom Alo from the very beginning. I remember when the paper first came out I had to send my piece from New York. I wrote it by hand, went to a shop and scanned the writing and sent the scanned copy by email.
Over these 21 years I saw the beginning of Prothom Alo, and understood its problems and errors. It wasn’t possible to hold on to the young team that had been with the paper at the outset. Maybe this was inevitable with the growth of any newspaper. But Prothom Alo doesn’t consider itself to be any other newspaper and so perhaps this could have been given a bit more attention.
Another problem was that the newspaper came forward with full support for the 1/11 military-backed caretaker government’s crackdown on crime and corruption. Surely that government was not free of all corruption and misrule? One of the main objectives of that government was to remove the two main political leaders and refurbish the political parties. That was a mistake. If change is to be brought out, democracy must be strengthened from the grassroots. One cannot strengthen democracy through undemocratic means. The economy, agriculture or health sector may be strengthened that way, but never democracy.
Prothom Alo’s support for that government was, of course, conditional in many cases. It had demanded a speedy restoration of political rights. But that did not happen and so this support proved to be a problem for Prothom Alo.
In order to reap benefits from the digital revolution, Prothom Alo has had to draw in news readers. This has lent a variety to its content. This is attracting young readers. But the page published to help students in their exams is much on the line of ‘guidebooks’ and hardly in keeping with educational ideals. We do not want the children to keep their heads stuck in textbooks alone and learn their lessons off by heart. They must read profusely and reach out all over for their knowledge. The page on studies should offer something new.
I remain with Prothom Alo because it still stands up for the truth, fights against corruption, holds up the problems of the people and stands by the youth. This does not please the government but that does not stop Prothom Alo to continue in its criticism. Even many of the annoyed people, like the bank looters and others, still read Prothom Alo the first thing in the morning.
May Prothom Alo’s bold stance grow stronger by the day, may it remain clear in its outlook and may its house become even more consolidated. May it take its readers far ahead. These are my wishes for Prothom Alo on its 2st anniversary.
* Syed Manzoorul Islam is a writer and educationist. This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir