The “fear factor” and our media

Hasan Ferdous
Thursday, May 11th, 2017

Stephen Colbert (Credit: AP/Richard Shotwell)


By now you must have heard the latest controversy caused by America’s favourite potty-mouthed late night show host, Stephen Colbert.  Last week he caused a stir by comparing Donald Trump’s mouth to Vladimir Putin’s underwear (well, he had a more fitting metaphor to make the comparison).


It wasn’t the worst insult hurled at Trump, but some of his loyal followers took offense, calling it homophobic. Even the decency police chief, the venerable Federal Communications Commissioner, took notice and said he was studying the complaints about crossing the decency line. Later, in a more conciliatory note, the Commissioner kind of defended the funny man. “It’s a free country. People are willing and able to say just about anything these days.”  He also added that unless a content is indecent, obscene or profane by FCC standards, the agency’s authority is “pretty limited.”


Everyone agrees Colbert’s comments were rather crude but obscene? No. Trump himself had said much worse into a live microphone, from which most TV stations had to bleep out his “p” word. After Colbert’s on-air tirade, all hell broke loose on the conservative media circuit which began howling, “Fire him”. The next day Colbert himself returned to the issue and said he had no regrets.  “I’m not going to repeat the phrase. But I just want to say, for the record, life is short, and anyone who expresses their love in their own way, is to me an American hero. I think we can all agree on that.”


At a time when the free press in America has come under tremendous attack from the White House – which has called the mainstream media “fake news” and “the enemy” –  it is a relief to see some brave souls still willing to stand up and claim their right to free speech guaranteed by the US constitution.


Indeed, Colbert’s monologue aimed at Trump was epic. After the President himself had called CBS’s weekly “Face the Nation,” the “Deface the Nation,” Colbert took it upon himself to defend a fellow journalist and his own TV station.  “Mr. Trump, your presidency? I love your presidency, I call it ‘Disgrace the Nation.”  He continued, “You’re not the POTUS, you’re the BLOTUS. You’re the glutton with a button. You’re a regular ‘Gorge’ Washington. You’re the presi-dunce. But you’re turning into a real prictator.”


As I write these lines and then re-read them to myself, I feel a chill running down my spine.  I cannot help wonder what would be the reaction if anything close to such a verbal assault ever


took place in Bangladesh, by a journalist or media personality, aimed at PMOB or anybody else in the government. People have been jailed for much lesser crime, including sharing a pen drive that contained a political satire. Even if the PMOB took the verbal barrage with a gin, there would be enough goons waiting on the sidelines to pounce on the supposed culprit. In the US, too, the reaction to Colbert’s monologue has been fierce, but nobody talked about sending him to jail or attacking him physically.


In Bangladesh, the story would have been totally different.


In recent months, there have been several reports on press freedom in Bangladesh issued by international watchdogs, including Human Rights Watch, Committee to Protect Journalists and Doctors without Borders, all painting a dismal picture of the state of media in Bangladesh. I have met with government officials who vehemently deny the charges, claiming the true state of the media is just the opposite, the proof of which is the unprecedented number of media organizations, including newspapers and TV stations, operating in Bangladesh.


It seems the people in power in Bangladesh always hold an adversarial attitude towards the media. No criticism is taken lightly, no joke is ever perceived light-heartedly. The reasonable (mostly) men of the judiciary, who still wear their robes left behind by the former colonial masters, are no less unreasonable when it comes to criticism from the media. (But I can’t talk about it, lest my Editor out of fear of defamation decides to expunge it).  All editors must navigate a fine line as they run the risk of inviting anger from all, those in power and those aspire to be in power. Local goons regularly rough up journalists for daring to question their questionable behaviour.


When it comes to reporting on religion and religious issues, we are downright nervous.  In fact, the atmosphere is worse than that, it is out-and-out fearful. I had opinion pieces trashed by my editors for questioning aspects of one-sided religiosity as the foundation of public policy, all because they are fearful of backlashes. There is a logic behind this madness. People wearing long robes and kishtitupi are often seen torching newspapers for perceived offenses.


Ours is still a tribal society, and like all tribal cultures, we are deeply intolerant, pretty much on all matters.  Many years ago, at Dhaka Courier, we had run a slightly “put him down” headline – all in jest – in a story about a former minister and illustrated it with a cartoon.  Two days later, the gentleman himself walked in, demanding to know who had the audacity to smear him.  I still remember nervous phone calls from Enayetullah Khan, the editor. Luckily he was a friend and decided not to fire me as his Executive Editor.


The attitude of intolerance is not the monopolized domain of the powerful or of the robed ones. Our otherwise high-minded writers and intellectuals are no different. There is no room for debate or disagreement even on the quality of a poem. I remember several years ago a poet walked into the office of a weekly magazine which had published a book review by me. He was looking for me to size me up for questioning the quality of his poetry. Luckily, I was absent on that day.


Democracy demands diversity of people, parties and opinions. It thrives on greater participation, which inevitably means inviting differing – sometimes even hostile – opinions. When debates are fierce, the public get to see the passionate side of their leaders.  The same is true of fierce critics like Colbert.  This does not wreck democracy, only fortifies.

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