As far as the current political situation is concerned, the South Asian countries are seen to experience similar types of challenges. Amongst them, however, the situation of Bangladesh can be stated as one of the most complex as the nation seemingly has become the prisoner of family-centric politics. The participants expressed the view in a seminar – titled ‘South Asia Decides: Upcoming Election and the Media‘ – organised jointly by the University of Westminster and Chevening South Asia Journalism Programme at the Institute of Government House in London on May 16.
BBC HARDtalk presenter David Leon, Radio 4 producer Phil Tinline, Indian writer and researcher Manu Pillai, author and tech blogger Jamie Bartlett, Senior Lecturer (International Relations) at the University of Westminster Ipshita Basu and Assistant Professor at the London School of Economics’ Department of International Development Dr Rajesh Venugopal also attended the seminar.
The next two years are crucial for the entire region, as Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Afghanistan would go for the polls. The ruling parties across South Asia have already started losing their popularity mainly because of their authoritarian attitude. They also made serious attempt to suppress the voice of their opponents and to influence the media. It seems that these factors will make it difficult to have decent and credible elections in these countries.
The seminar discussed mainly four issues: the government and the oppositions’ current position in national politics; the role of media; influence of the expatriates in the election and South Asia’s vision of social media and fake news.
Jean Seaton – the Professor of Media History at the University of Westminster and the Official Historian of BBC – stressed upon the present deterioration of the concept of democracy worldwide and the attacks on free press. For his part, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent of Financial Times Gideon Rachman said that the Western countries once used to consider the South Asian nations as examples of ‘ideal’ democracy. However, the emergence of populism in the US and the victory of Donald Trump in Presidential Elections damaged the democratic culture in many countries. According to Rachman, President Trump communicates with voters directly through Twitter and Facebook (a trend followed by different world leaders and media persons), thus, presenting strong challenges to the conventional media.
Meanwhile, journalist David Bergman said that elections in India and other South Asian countries are based on agendas set by different political parties. However, the situation is slightly different in Bangladesh, where two families are the main stakeholders of the national politics. So, there is very little possibility of the emergence of a third political force. According to Bergman, the ruling Awami League has created an awkward situation for the civil society by describing the oppositions as ‘anti-national’. It becomes really difficult for the opposition parties to take a stand against the government, he explained. Bergman further said that the imprisonment of former Prime Minister and Opposition leader Begum Khaleda Zia and the attacks on the media made it clear that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League would try to stay in power by any means.
Responding to a question on the influence of foreign policy, Bergman insisted that the Western countries put the Hasina government under tremendous pressure in 2014 by condemning the one-sided election held in Bangladesh. However, the PM overcame the crisis quite easily with India’s help.
Former BBC journalist William Crowley stressed that the concept of caretaker government was a good one, but the Awami League refused to hand over the power to the caretaker government ahead of General Elections. Meanwhile, another former BBC journalist David Page has advised the media people not to behave like political workers, saying that journalists should not be loyal to the ruling party.
All the speakers agreed that politics is not about winning elections only. They opined that the formation of a just and accountable government is important. And for that, the media will have to play a big role. Meanwhile, News and Current Affairs supremo of Channel 4 Dorothy Byrne highlighted the importance of unbiased journalism in combating the pressure of the ruling party and influential people. She urged journalists to join hands against the evil forces, saying that they should not keep any news ‘secret’ because of ‘fear of consequences’. Byrne told the audience that the government of Myanmar did not allow foreign journalists to cover the ‘Rohingya’ issue. However, the common people informed the global community about the condition of Rohingyas through secret videos. According to Byrne, it’s important to ensure the participation of common people in the political process. Or else, the influential people will keep the information secret.
It has to be seen how far the mentality of politically conscious people have matured and journalism has advanced, taking into account the lessons learnt (and to be learnt) from Bandung to 2018 JMComm Conference.
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