October 24, 2007

Deshi Blogs and the Future of Citizen Journalism in Bangladesh

Say it with me: Deshi blogs have arrived. And with a tremendous bang.

Whether they will stay or not is another question altogether, and I'll touch on this question a bit more below. But I assure you that if you are a regular reader of Deshi blogs, you are not likely to forget these last five days. These last five days have seen the blogs break the news, discuss the news and perhaps even create the news. It started with Mash's post on E-Bangladesh and ends with Dr. David King, the KSG professor whose class the General was invited to speak to, responding to (unsubstantiated as far as I know and irresponsible I feel) accusations made against him on Voice of Bangladeshi Bloggers. (h/t Addabaj @ Shocholoyton)

Deshi Blogger wrote:

Bangladesh government sought Dr. David C. King's advice for election reform and wanted to appoint him as special consultant during his visit to Bangladesh. For this reason he invited Gen. Moeen to come to his school and to speak to his class and probably finalize the deal of him working as consultant. Money talks .... There is a definitely a conflict of interest. But who cares?

To which Dr. King replied:

What are you talking about? I had no contact with General Moeen until he came to my class yesterday, and nobody ever approched me about consulting. Why didn't you just email me before posting?

He then left a second comment which I feel is worth thinking about. Not for a minute or so, but long and hard:

It has been interesting reading comments about the visit on various blogs over the last day. There are many conspiracy theorists among your community.

My students and I encouraged General Moeen to operate in a fully transparent way. I encourage everyone in the caretaker government to be transparent.

That applies, too, to the Bangladeshi diaspora. To my taste, too many blog posts include phrases like "rumor has it," or "it is said," -- or simply invent their own realities.

I'm not in Bangladesh, so I don't understand all of your ways. And I appreciate Moina asking the question -- but all anyone has to do is just ask. Goodness knows our students didn't hold back when asking General Moeen questions yesterday and today.

(Emphasis mine)

I can assure the professor that Bangladeshis are not naturally more conspiracy-theory-prone than any other people. But once the government starts witholding information and acting secretive, that is what you get: misinformation and disinformation. It's been said before and in fact, I've been talking against censorship so much over this summer that I feel bad for my regular readers. But that really is the core of the issue. If American media outlets felt half the pressures that the Bangladeshi media have come under since January 11th and started censorship under coercion or self-restraint, American blogs would have been filled with as much conpiracy-theory and rumour. Which might have led to further censorship of the more adventurous media outlets and de-legitimization of blogs on the grounds of "bad journalism", "endangering the national interest" and of course my favourite "conspiracy". Cliche it along with me: vicious cycle.

But the rest of what he says is very relevant too, if only to think about. Yes, with increasing attention being paid to blogs, Deshi blogs themselves need to do some soul-searching and make sure that they don't start peddling in half-truths that are easily confirmed or dismissed. It's the obligation that we have to our readers, and frankly to our country which deserves the best and not the truth bent to fit out ideological perspectives, be they AL, BNP, Jamaati or CTG/shongskarponthi (sorry to sound all deshpremi and December 16thy and a bit like the General himself!).

And then there is that picture of the Chief of our Army taking questions from students. Alas, had it been in his own country, from students of the premier institution of his own land - and without arguments, this is still Dhaka University -I would have been happier. Instead, we know what happened there, and I have no wish to revisit that dark moment in Bangladesh's civil-military relations and indeed its history.

"One flag, One Nation, One Country - Our Bangladesh" - then why not take questions - open, unfettered questions - from those students studying under our flag, belonging to our nation, living in our country, ie. BANGLADESHI students? I throw my question at an abyss expecting no answer.

Which brings me to my last issue, the different ways in which authorities deal with blogs. I leave you with this post on how governments deal with citizen media, aptly titled as "Engage, Ignore, Supress". The author gives examples of the good (engagement, the city of Buenos Aires' official blog, Democrats and Republicans answering questions to YouTube video-bloggers), the bad (ignoring, what's been happening to us -I'll speak for myself - me) and the ugly (supressing, Egyptian bloggers being arrested, Malaysian bloggers being called in for questioning or getting sued).

But most pertinently to our current situation the author says this:

And this, I argue, is exactly the view that government’s should be taking when it comes to citizen media: it’s not a threat, it’s an opportunity. A government, like any large organization, is a brand. Use blogs to engage your constituents, to answer their criticisms, to educate them about your strategy.

Thanks to The 3rd World View for sharing the story above. One of the oldest Deshi blogs - if not the oldest - for those who don't know!

Already, the gathering storm can be felt. There was the threatening of bloggers during Tasneem Khalil's detention. Every now and then, I can hear the "noise": "surely all these bloggers are paid by the political parties" (usual suspect is Mr. Sajeeb Wazed Joy, perhaps because he too maintains a blog, but I've heard variations) or "all you bloggers are related to corrupt politicians". Never refuting the evidence or arguments presented, always going for character assassination. That is the worst way to "ignore" someone.

From my previous experience with Bangladeshi political culture, I'm preparing for a campaign to delegitimise bloggers. A campaign whose magnitude will be proportional to how relevant they become. One just hopes that it dithers between the good and the bad, and never reaches the ugly. But as always with Bangladesh, one hopes for the best. And the best would be if our government engages us, frees the media and allows a much freer flow of information. It's the lifeblood of life.