Weak areas in Bangladesh’s journalism

Several Bangladeshi newspapers are seen in the photo.Prothom Alo File Photo

A major area of weakness in Bangladesh’s journalism is failing to follow up on important stories that are being discussed and a lack of enthusiasm or interest in keeping the readers, viewers and listeners continuously updated. But these are areas that must be given due attention in order to remain relevant in the field.

Take a recent event, for instance. A total of 46 persons died in the fire that broke out on 29 February this year at Bailey Road in the capital. About a month or so later, on 8 April, RAJUK published its inquiry report. In this span of time the news media came up with a flurry of stories on various angles of the incident, reports on those who had died or were injured and so on. It was then seen that the government launched into ‘drives’ to shut down restaurants in various areas of the city. In many cases, the owners themselves shut down the establishments. The government forces arrested many at the time. These drives gradually petered out within a few days. After that there has been no follow-up reports on what charges were brought against those arrested at the time, whether the restaurants were reopened or not, what was discovered by those who had conducted the drives and so on.

Many media outlets reported that RAJUK’s report pointed to the faults of everyone but its own. No initiative seems to have been taken up to inform the readers, viewers or listeners about who were in charge in the various organisations who were at fault. It is not likely that any such initiative will be taken in the future either. After all, we recall at least four previous incidents of fire – the fire in Churihatta of Chawkbazar that took place on 20 February 2019, in FR Tower of Banani on 28 March 2019, in chemical warehouses of Nimtali on 3 June 2010, and in the Hashem Foods factory of Narayanganj on 8 July 2021. Other than remembering the incidents and the people who died in those incidents every year when the day comes around, and what was not included in the inquiry reports if ever published, nothing more is reported. There are 12 agencies involved in overseeing the restaurant businesses in Bangladesh. There is no news about what they have done.

Let’s go a little back towards the end of 2019 when the government authorities “suddenly” became aware of casinos operating in the country. It was as if the authorities  cracked down on these establishments the moment they found out about them. Certain persons involved with the ruling party were arrested and cases were lodged against them. We occasionally hear of these cases making no progress, or the accused returning to the country and so on. But four years have passed and the media still does not follow up on why this so-called crackdown took place, what measures were taken, whether they are more such casinos and so on.

Follow-up reports not necessarily have to be about any big incident. There can be follow-up reports on what the people are interested in, on what they should be informed about or even routine matters.

Another factor noticed in connection with follow-up reports is that the narrative dished out by the government or its special agencies are given detailed coverage in such a manner as if these are media follow-ups. There are no visible efforts to verify the facts outside of the government narrative. There are hardly any instances where those in power are questioned. Have Bangladesh’s journalists questioned any relevant persons connected to the 2016 cyber heist of Bangladesh Bank’s reserves? Those who were in charge at that time, surely are not untouchable. The reports on this matter are simply how many times the submission of the relevant inquiry report to the court has been delayed.

It is the same regarding the killing of journalists Sagar and Runi. It has been 12 years since they were killed and the submission of the investigation report to court has been delayed over 100 times. That is what the follow up is only about. Why do not the journalists ask why and where is the investigations report held up?

Recently a daily newspaper published an exposé, claiming to have unearthed details on the ill-gotten wealth of former IG of police and former RAB DG Benazir Ahmed. The matter was discussed in the media after in surfaced, but no one at the top echelons of government reacted in any way. The Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC)  lawyer said that the commission would certain take a decision according to the law if adequate evidence was found. No one outside of ACC was questioned. Why were those who awarded him when he was in power not questioned?

Follow-up reports not necessarily have to be about any big incident. There can be follow-up reports on what the people are interested in, on what they should be informed about or even routine matters.

The Watergate scandal is an example of how a follow-up report can lead to big news. On 17 June 1972 the Washington Post reported on its front page that the police had arrested four persons caught in an attempted theft at the Democratic Party central office in the Watergate building. The first report was filed by the Washington Post reporter Alfred E Lewis who covered the police beat. Then Bob Woodward was sent to find out about the arrested persons who were brought to court repeatedly for charges to be formed. It was then revealed that those persons had actually been planting bugs in the office to listen to what was transpiring there. In the meantime, another reporter, Carl Bernstein, began digging around about the arrested persons. The Washington Post continued covering this story for 26 months.

In 2003 Martin Baron and his colleagues in the Boston Globe won the Pulitzer Prize for the exposé on the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church. This investigative  series began with one news report, leading to innumerable reports that followed.

The importance of follow-up reports is all the more important at present times. Seattle Times columnist John Talton, explaining this to the International Journalist Network in 2018, said new reports are sent to people speedily nowadays but often there is no further inquiry about what happened next or how the incident ended. These details not only benefit the readers, but also provide the reporters with ingredients for many more reports.

Talton said that follow-ups are perhaps even more important for online media than print. Those involved in online media in Bangladesh need to keep this in mind. But what is more important is to pay attention to this weak area in Bangladesh’s journalism. So much is happening all around, for which one-day coverage is not sufficient. If journalism is to remain relevant at present times, the readers, viewers and listeners must be given much more.

* Ali Riaz is a distinguished professor of the Department of Politics and Government at the Illinois State University in the US, nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and president of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir