Thursday, September 8, 2005

'Prothom alo', first light

One night last week when some members of the so-called ``Hyatt 10’’ (five to be exact) who wanted the President removed from office were at the Inquirer to talk to editors and to also complain about an editorial that did not put them in a good light, a guest in another room was sharing with some reporters and columnists his experiences as an editor of the biggest daily in Bangladesh.

Our esteemed guest was Matiur Rahman, 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts. Rahman is not just a newspaperman, he is also an advocate of women’s rights who actively uses the power of the media, the written word in particular, to help end violence against women.

Rahman and four others from different fields received their awards (cash included) at solemn ceremonies on Aug. 31.

Rahman was awarded for ``wielding media for constructive social change’’. Sorry, no Filipino awardee this year.

In the media, this year’s RM awards and related activities were clearly eclipsed by all the ado about the impeachment process against the President.

Rahman has been described as ``the navigator of positive social and cultural change’’ in Bangladesh. He founded the Bangla language daily newspaper Prothom Alo (which means first light) in 1998. The daily broke all previous circulation records and before its first anniversary, it peaked at a circulation of 1.2 million. It has now averaged at 225,000.

Why the amazing start? Prothom Alo satisfied readers who were thirsty for authentic news, bold revelations and a popular stance to side with the nation and its people. But Prothom Alo went beyond journalism. It has crossed over to advocacy, something most media practitioners and believers in so-called objective journalism (if there is such a thing) are not wont to do.

How did this start? One day a senior sub-editor on women’s issues came in so sad and sick of what has been happening. Here was another acid throwing incident.

Rahman thought: ``How often have I gone mad for breaking news in the bizarre forest of politics and economics? All those strikes and speeches, do they mean anything? In fact, how important are they compared to this tragedy? And how many times will this continue? Why should one burn someone’s face with acid?’’

Rahman left the office with the sub-editor and rushed to hospital. He recalled seeing doctors, the police and reporters gathered around. Rahman was one of them, a spectator. He could smell the burnt flesh. The victim’s face had third-degree burns from hydrochloric acid.

The girl was just 15. As the story went, she refused the advances of the son of a local don. Slighted, the guy made good his revenge by throwing acid on the girl while she was studying by the window of her home.

``Can’t we do something?’’ Rahman challenged his staff as soon as he got back to the office.

Prothom Alo continues to loudly cry against acid throwing, a crime committed against women who are supposed to have offended their male attackers when they denied them sex, marriage or suitable dowries. Many women are also maimed and disfigured in this manner because of family feuds, land disputes or local rivalries.

When splashed on the face, the acid burns the skin and affects the facial bones and eyes, leaving victims permanently disfigured. Acid commonly used in jewelry, tannery and battery shops is highly corrosive.

According to Rahman, some 300 people are disfigured in acid throwing incidents every year. Unlike bride burning (by throwing gas) in India which has been a criminal practice for a long time, acid throwing is new to Bangladesh. The number of cases has grown in the past decade.

Through Prothom Alo, Rahman has called on the nation to respond. Through daily appeals, Rahman declared war on acid throwers and pleaded to readers to contribute to the Prothom Alo Aid Fund for acid victims.

With scarred and disfigured acid victims lending their voices, Rahman solicited donations at rallies and press conferences. He also called upon celebrities and volunteers to spread the appeal throughout the country. In no time, word spread and Bangladeshis at home and abroad gave their share. Rahman acknowledged each small share in the newspaper and channeled donations directly to the victims.

Donations were used for burn treatments, plastic surgery, legal fees, living expenses, new dwellings for some and income-generating assets such as milking cows, sewing machines, land, shops, etc.

Prothom Alo also kept the pressure on the government to strengthen laws against acid attacks and the unregulated sale of dangerous chemicals. In 2002, Bangladesh’s Acid Crimes Prevention Act and Acid Control Act stiffened penalties for acid throwers and tightened licensing requirements for acid sale.

The public’s response to Prothom Alo’s appeals affirmed Rahman’s belief that ``society is not sleeping.’’ By June 2005, some 8.2 million taka had been coursed to over 100 acid throwing victims.

Rahman has since widened his advocacy and has taken up issues related to HIV-AIDS, drug abuse and Muslim extremists. His vigilance does not come without a price. Rahman is regularly harassed and threatened and the government has withdrawn advertising from Prothom Alo and even haled him to court for the paper’s critical reporting.

A man with an easy smile, Rahman takes it all in stride. For him, Prothom Alo is the people’s ``hope against hope.’’ He says: ``I work to use it for the cause of the people.’’
Hold on to your prothom alo, your first light.