Syed Badrul Ahsan
When is a press conference not a press conference?
When journalists decide that asking pointed, serious and credible questions, in this case of the nation’s Prime Minister, is less important than launching into speeches of their own, the better to inform the head of government of what they think of conditions obtaining in the country;
When senior, otherwise respected veterans in the profession think nothing of wounding their self-esteem through indulging in blatant sycophancy in their unabashed bid to impress the head of government in full view of the nation.
When that happens, it is the Prime Minister and the rest of the nation that must wait patiently until those media people, some of them offering themselves as experts where issues of grave national import are concerned, decide that they have had their say, that nothing more of wisdom need be proffered.
A press conference, otherwise a very serious affair where Prime Ministers or Presidents are expected to enlighten their people on how they perceive their nations as also the world around them, is in Bangladesh these days regularly commandeered by a coterie of media people — and they are all very senior in the profession, with some of them having already reached the state of the veteran — all too ready to impress the Prime Minister and the country with their putative mastery of socio-political conditions.
It is an image which takes shape every time a news conference or media briefing is called by the Prime Minister. In the process, what happens is the sight of the head of government waiting patiently, sometimes in a state of exasperation, for these senior, rather self-important journalists to bring an end to their perorations before she can come forth with her views. But, then again, she is often pushed into a position where she has to interrupt these media people, already carried away by the infinity of their wisdom and their volubility, and ask them what their questions for her are or indeed if they have any questions at all.
Predictably, for much of the time, there are no questions. Once you have agreed with the Prime Minister on everything even before she has expressed her point of view or offered her take on the issues, once you have declaimed cheerfully on the crowds lining the streets of a foreign land to welcome her, there is hardly any point in asking questions, is there?
And that is when a prime ministerial press conference dwindles — thanks to these senior journalists, all of whom make sure that they have front row seats and so can interact directly with the head of government — when it is praises of the government and indeed of the Prime Minister these media people begin to sing. It surely embarrasses the Prime Minister. There is little question that it makes citizens watching it all on television go red in the face. If this is journalism, how do you define genuflection? No one asked these journalists to bend, but they appear to be ready to do worse. They crawl. It is not a pretty sight. Images of Manik Mia, Zahur Hossain Chowdhury, Abdus Salam, SantoshGupta, Waheedul Haque, S.M. Ali, Ahmedul Kabir, KG Mustafa, ABM Musa, Enayetullah Khan and of their integrity and self-respect, flash in the mind. Why is there no one of their stature in Bangladesh’s media world today?
In these last few years, every time the Prime Minister has called a press conference, these media people desperate about keeping the cameras focused on them have happily undermined their profession. They do not ask questions. They go into singing paeans of the ruling circles. Where journalism is a matter of mastering the issues, preparing questions and firing those questions away at public figures without fear or favour, these journalists we observe on the Ganobhavan lawns every time the Prime Minister holds a press conference cheerfully undermine themselves and the profession they are part of. You and I watch them on television and feel shame coursing through our being. They feel no such thing.
Impressing the powerful in the corridors of power is what they do or try to do. They do not realize that the Prime Minister or for that matter any politician of note may not be terribly impressed by their behaviour. Ordinary citizens, always the repository of common sense, have meanwhile been thoroughly put off by the pusillanimity of these oleaginous media people. These media men have, after all, successfully turned a press conference into a competition of which one of them can ingratiate himself the most before the Prime Minister.
They thus have broken a cardinal rule of journalism, and the ruleis that personal politics must never get the better of professional journalistic judgment. They take a swipe at the political opposition, in the clear hope that the Prime Minister will be pleased. They close the doors, for the government, to interaction with those it might need to talk to in future by denigrating them, with not a shade of embarrassment, at this press conference. Some of them proffer the advice to the Prime Minister, without batting an eyelid, that she should engage lobbyists in order to come by the Nobel Prize for Peace seeing that she has come by every other award meanwhile.
No questions are asked about the government’s strategy in handling the Rohingya crisis. Not one of these senior journalistsat that press conference raises any question about the rule of law in relation to on-going operations against real and suspected drug dealers. No one has any question for her on the state of law and order or on the crisis in education or on her views of the forthcoming election.
And that is how a press conference the country waits for is destroyed by wave after wave of public sycophancy on the part of a section of the media. The Prime Minister surely did not call these journalists to hear them make speeches or deliberate on the issues or to kowtow before her. It is only her prerogative to deliver speeches or explain the issues at a press conference, no one else’s. But like the rest of us in this country, she waits for all these editors, these CEOs of television channels, these veterans who are forever in the race to hog the limelight, to draw the curtain on their wisdom and eventually let her put in a word edgeways.
By now, the press conference has turned into an unabashed competition by these front-row media men to convince the head of government as well as the nation out there that their wisdom is all. Self-esteem, if you have noticed, has simply ceased to exist. But, of course, it happens all the time. Why are we complaining?
Even so, when does a press conference lose focus?
When editors, executive editors, managing editors, news editors and CEOs of newspapers and the various television channels decide that their hard-working reporters, who cover the prime minister’s programmes all the year round in rain and shine and who are therefore best equipped and prepared to question the head of government on matters of public interest, are not smart or qualified enough to be present at Ganobhavan. Those reporters on the regular prime ministerial beat would have asked questions. Their bosses are more inclined to refine the art of flattery before the head of government. The Prime Minister is not impressed. And neither are the rest of us.
Syed Badrul Ahsan: Associate Editor, The Asian Age. Contributing Columnist, Shottobani.