Mohammad Sahid Ullah is an Associate Professor at University of Chittagong, Bangladesh. Vice Chair of Law Section of the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR), Sahid Ullah is currently working as a SAGE- Tejeshwar Singh Memorial Fellow on De-westernization of Media and Journalism Education in South Asia: In search of new strategies.

Sahid Ullah was in Delhi to present a paper in an international conference on “Contours of Media Governance: Teaching, Disciplinarity, Methodology”, organised by Centre for Culture Media and Governance, Jamia Millia Islamia on February 25-27, 2013.  In an interview with Shafaque Alam, a CCMG alumni and journalist with the Statesman, he talks about media environment in Bangladesh and the recent Shahbagh Movement.  Excerpts:

SHAFAQUE ALAM: How do you see the media environment in Bangladesh?

MOHAMMAD SAHID ULLAH: We have a relatively small media market due to small readership. There are not enough media jobs in the market and a few colleges provide training for the same. The overall media climate is fine and enjoying apparent freedom in expressing everything independently. Government don’t interfere into any media activities.

SHAFAQUE : What are the institutions that run journalism courses there?

SAHID ULLAH : There are some public and private universities like Dhaka University, Rajshahi University, Chittagong University, etc. that run such courses, however, there is no such specialized college or centre for journalism education. Journalism or media is taught as papers in the courses of social sciences.

Mohammad Sahid Ullah at the Registration Desk of the Media Governance Conference, Jamia Millia Islamia
Mohammad Sahid Ullah at the Registration Desk of the Media Governance Conference, Jamia Millia Islamia

SHAFAQUE : What is the quality of courses in the existing colleges?

SAHID ULLAH : It is quite different from India. Most of the colleges do not provide practical knowledge due to scarcity of resources or lack of infrastructure. Sometimes teachers also do not have the up to date technical know-how to train the students.

SHAFAQUE : Who owns media in Bangladesh?

SAHID ULLAH : Most of the media houses are owned by business houses and political leaders. Media functioning is not much autonomous.

SHAFAQUE : Now lets us talk about the recent Shahbagh Movement which has got global media attention. People want death penalty to those who committed war crimes, including some Jamaat-e Islami leaders, during the 1971 wars of Independence. How come this sudden outburst after around 42 years?

SAHID ULLAH : It is not a sudden outburst at all. After the reemergence of democratic political climate in 1991, people from all walks of life seek fair trial of the war criminals. Even in 1992 a ‘People’s court’ handed down death penalty to the war criminals. Since then, the demand for the trial of war criminals has become an important political issue in the politics of Bangladesh.  During the election of 2008, Bangladesh Awami League (BAL), which is currently in power, included the ‘Trial of the War Criminals’ as one of the key points in its election manifestos. It is popularly believed that around 20 millions of young Bangladeshi (aged between 18 and 25) voted for BAL just because of two promises it made in its election manifesto: Trial of War Criminals and Digital Bangladesh (transformation of Bangladesh into a Digital Country).

Shahbag protesters in Dhaka
Protesters at Shahbagh, Dhaka

SHAFAQUE : The protesters are demanding a Bangladesh free of ‘Razakars’, the Islamists who are alleged to have sided with the Pakistani army during the 1971 Liberation War. Is it justified?
SAHID ULLAH : Yes, the demand is justified. It is evident from the Shahbagh Movement that the youth are not against any political party; they just demand highest sentences to the war criminals. The young generation does not want to bear the legacy of wrong deeds committed by Razakars (murders, loots, rapes side by side with the Pakistani army in 1971 against common people). In my recent contribution to the International Communication Gazette that will appear in the issue of April 2013 (75/3), I have argued that youths are more interested in making the country free from fanatics and fundamentalists, be it Islamists or ultra leftists. People are pious definitely, but never accept the racism.

SHAFAQUE : Do you think that the Shahbagh protest is politically motivated or it is the voice of the common people of Bangladesh?
SAHID ULLAH : Shahbagh movement is not politically motivated: I mean party based political mobilisation. Young generation has lost faith in conventional political parties in Bangladesh. Of course, youths are key driving force of this movement and they have political motivation – to make the country free from anarchy, free from corruption and see justice in every sphere of life. But unlike in the past, most of these youths are not affiliated to any political party. People in general appreciate this new type of movement. I mean movement from non-political entity.

SHAFAQUE : Do you feel Shahbagh is turning into Bangladesh’s Tahrir Square?

SAHID ULLAH : Not at all. I don’t believe that Shahbagh will turn as Tahir Squire. Shahbagh Movement is not politically motivated and is non-violent like Anna Hazarre movement against corruption in India. Tahir Square Movement was led by political party, but the Shahbagh participants initially were without any leader and now it is run with a platform. All members are non-political and initiators are bloggers, who have never been part of any political movement; neither activists not violent protesters. They do not want to topple the government or grab the power.

SHAFAQUE : How strong is the grip of the Jamaat-e Islami on the masses in Bangladesh?
SAHID ULLAH : Jamaat-e Islami Bangladesh, as per its claim, is striving to make the country an Islamic State, run under Sharia Law. People in general don’t like the party as all the top rank leaders played anti-Bangladesh role during the War of Liberation in 1971. This party never gets more than 2 percent vote while all other parties that formed government got 35-42 percent votes. 80 million voters of Bangladesh have never ever trusted  Jamaat-e Islami.  So I feel it will be hard to get electoral mandate to make Bangladesh an Islamic state. People will just never forget the horrors of 1971.

SHAFAQUE : How do you see the role of media, especially social media, in the making of the Shahbagh Movement?
SAHID ULLAH :  According to a study that I did in 2010-11, youth and the urban youth in particular, are interested in expressing their grievance virtually, through social media, but not on the street through chanting slogans. I was in fact pessimist about the inclination and interest of new generation in the political engagement. I mean party-based politics. But Shahbagh Movement has shown that though they are not willing to join political parties as activists, members or whole timers, they are politically very conscious. The movement was started by some bloggers, namely Bangladesh Bloggers and Online Activists Network, who are not affiliated to any political party. The conventional media joined and supported the movement only at a later stage and of course fueled it.

SHAFAQUE : How people of minority community were affected?

SAHID ULLAH : Following the Shahbagh Movement, Jamaat called for a ‘strike’ across the country, burnt vehicles, attacked minority houses and killed police personnel. The history of Bangladesh is replete with such episodes of violence that  its cadres enacted on minority communities  in 1971, 1991, 1997, 2001 and 2010,  to swing people’s sentiment in favour of Islam.

SHAFAQUE : Has the government, as Bangladesh National Party’s chief Khaleda Zia claimed, failed in controlling the protest?

SAHID ULLAH : Initially, BNP kept silent about the violent protest of Jamaat and did not say anything about Shahbagh clearly. Now, they are in favour of Jamaat, its key ally of BNP. Thus, they (in their own words) urged the trial should be more transparent. They are more interested in bringing in place a Caretaker government than in saving the war criminals. The government does not like to control Shahbagh protestors as the movement will make its work easy: Trial of War Criminals (to fulfill one of the promises it did in the election manifesto). The government initially was a bit tolerant on Jamaat protestors but now is growing tough on the Jamaat activists, I mean after the violent protests that left around 50 persons dead till 28th February.

Mohammad Sahid Ullah may be contacted at: