The media’s failures on Myanmar

Afsan Chowdhury
Wednesday, October 4th, 2017
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Considering that Bangladesh media is a robust one and usually capable of anticipating events, it’s a bit odd that it failed to read the Rohingya situation so badly. Although these pages have been an exception, having called the “stop-start genocide” in progress in Rakhine at least as far back as 2015, a sense of wonder and lack of sensitisation in the wider mainstream media over the last one month have been palpable. One doesn’t expect the bureaucracy to be on its toes but the media is another matter altogether. Yet it sat like a duck caught in a trap which Myanmar had set for many years. Why did media sleep on such a big issue is a question they will have to face for long.

 

Part of the problem lies in prioritizing news items and how media views news categories. Myanmar has been a blind spot as it not something that could directly be connected to local political issues. Media was more keen about issues like India, Pakistan, ISI, RAW, and of course the AL-BNP fight because it was essentially about domestic politics. Our domestic political obsessions cloud our vision so heavily that we are /were practically blind when we go beyond our borders. Media was loyal as well as prisoners of local politics.

 

What we ignore and why

 

The neglect of such a critical issue could only be read in line with the hyper attention we paid to the recent debunked story on the PM’s alleged assassination that was foiled. The absurd level of attention that was paid to that story was largely because it feeds our extreme level of interest which roughly gets read as an AL-BNP story.

 

Once the Myanmar refugee story broke we remained stuck to the sensational and the human interest aspect, ignoring the strategic aspects which needed better understanding in order to explain why it was happening in the first place. We did not do it as we lacked the capacity to do so in the first place. It showed a marked weakness in media skills that shows that is still not free but follows what politicians tell us to think and do.

 

Media is also confused about where its real constituency is. Most media members failed to read the Myanmar crisis though it could be the biggest threat in many ways to Bangladesh for long. It’s not just about a million large people burdening the environment and the economy but the socio-economic and security threats as well.

 

The hidden crisis, the racist eyes

 

For years the refugees didn’t really exist as a human group not to mention in distress. They were distant refugees who had escaped pogrom in Myanmar and lived in Teknaf and Ukhia and were somehow as anonymous as the yaba pills many of them were supposed to be smuggling. They were either useless or criminals and many women were involved in sex work which further demonized them in our racist eyes.

 

Though this only told a very partial part of the story yet media rarely if ever went beyond the superficial level. This was because no domestic political connections could be made with the Rohingya/Myanmar issue hence it was not considered interesting. The result was the lack of pressure on various governments to take measure to prevent the problem from becoming overwhelming which has fairly become as it has now.

 

Basically, the agenda for media attention is not being set by public interest but political ones. Hence the concept of the national interest itself becomes political party based. Thus the state recedes into the background and the party pushes to the top even beyond the interest of the country. In this unusual scenario where national interest is defined as party interest the media lost its identity and reduced itself to being an appendage of political parties and their agenda.

 

The crisis in media of neglecting such an issue is symptomatic of the larger malady of a weakly constructed state identity which can’t or doesn’t distinguish between the political party and the state. This affects most perceptions of public service and law and order too but that it would spill over into the media space perhaps was unexpected.  Is it because the media also looks at itself as a loyal partisan of one or the other party?

 

No matter what, the media failed to notice the problems that are now upon us because reporting on minor or minute political issues became more important than what ultimately became a national issue. Media was not guarding public interest and thus it failed.

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