by: Duncan Bartlett
(Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a former BBC World Service correspondent. He was in Dhaka for the December 2018 election campaign with a group of journalists led by EBF President Ansar Ahmed Ullah)
Reports which focus on disputes offer little by way of motivation or encouragement. The start of the year is a good time to set fresh goals. I tend to keep my resolutions if I receive plenty of support and encouragement. This year, I’ve decided to raise my fitness level and I’ve worked out with two personal trainers.
One is very strict and plays heavy metal music, while he shouts at me to do more dreaded push-ups. The other trainer chooses a soundtrack of cheerful pop music and keeps the praise flowing throughout the session. I’m sure I’ll get fit quicker with her at my side.
I’m not avoiding criticism completely, but too much complaining is demotivating. Looking through the media coverage of Bangladesh’s recent election, I can understand why some Bengalis feel a bit deflated.
For 15 years, I worked as a presenter on the BBC. The corporation values impartial and independent analysis of political matters, both in Britain and in other countries.
Its reports on the Bangladesh election highlighted claims by the opposition that the process was “farcical” and that 17 people had been killed in election violence.
The BBC noted the crucial fact that the leader of the Jatiya Oikya Front, Dr Kamal Hossain, did not himself stand in the election. But that was quite deep into the story.
For those following the headlines, the reports of violence and allegations of vote-rigging would have left a poor impression of Bangladesh.
This carries political implications. Britain’s Asia Minister, Mark Field, welcomed the participation of all opposition parties, but said he was “aware of credible accounts” of obstacles faced by some of them.
Minister Field also said he was “deeply concerned” by the reports of violence. This is an entirely appropriate response, as it is the responsibility of governments to respond to warnings of danger.
Both the BBC and the British government avoided the debate about whether some extremists had used the election process to try to gain legitimacy.
I am afraid that in many parts of the world, especially within Asia, elections tend to increase divisions based on religion and other factors. So, is it entirely fair to assume that the surge in violence was political?
And to put the figure of 17 reported deaths into context — more than 4,000 people were killed in traffic accidents across the country last year, according to the BUET Accident Research Institute. Only a few of those tragic deaths made headlines.
Reporters who cover elections need a story, so inevitably they will pick up on bad news. But experienced journalists will also contextualize why some parties win support and others are left on the margins.
In Bangladesh, there is a good news story to tell about rapid economic growth, social progress, poverty reduction, and improved opportunities for women.
Reports which ignore this — and focus solely on disputes and political rivalries — offer little by way of motivation or encouragement. They also deprive people of the information they need to guide their voting habits going forward.