Media coverage of ‘war on drugs’
Md. Shamsul Islam, Executive Editor, Our Time : As a media-critic turned journalist, I find it quite difficult to objectively assess the role of the media in the ongoing drive against drugs and the extrajudicial killings associated with it. Following some classic quotes on freedom of expression, our expectations to the media always remain sky-high. But once you are within the industry, you may find various internal and external dynamics at work which hinder the way a media professional would like to cover certain issues. The ongoing war on drugs is no exception.
My first observation, what I would rather prefer saying, is the constructive role played by the press while covering the government’s quite abrupt anti-drug crackdown. The issue of drug abuse has always been a popular choice in our media and any initiative by the government against drug crimes is always welcomed. But in the present context, citing some innocent deaths like that of Cox’s Bazar municipal councilor Akramul, the media vehemently kept on opposing extrajudicial killings in the name of anti-drug drive, which they find a severe violation of human rights even in the 21st century.
So, when we are all set to take great pride in as journalists for our role as human rights advocates, our social media exposed that it was, in fact, the mainstream media that had once labeled Akramul as a top smuggler of yaba. It seemed to many that the media then followed the official line while publishing the list of criminals, without verifying the fact. Though this kind of findings downgraded credibility of the media to some extent, it can still be credited to creating a strong voice among the common people against such killings.
Another issue that surprised me is the media’s inability to go deep into the government’s motivation to carry out such a drive at this point of time. Media’s typical observation i.e. to silence the government’s opponents ahead of the election came to many as too simplistic analysis. Is it a populist measure to win the hearts and minds of the millions of families affected by the menace of drugs, especially when the election is now round the corner?
Failure to see the ongoing anti-drug drives from strategic and security perspective is another neglected area by the media. Scant attention has been paid to connect the present war on drugs with Myanmar or Rohingya crisis. For example, involvement of the latter has aggravated the drug abuse scenario in the entire country, posing a serious threat to national security. Has the government taken it as a national security threat? Unfortunately, our media has not succeeded in unearthing the real intention behind the government’s current move on the issue.
Equally important was the media’s inability to suggest corrective measures for the government from social, political and legal points of view. In fact, our media has a long history of help eliminating serious vices from the society – e.g. media mobilized public opinion and helped government devise legal measures to mitigate acid violence from the society. Drug traders are powerless if the people are motivated to stay away from drugs and the press could engage civil society more to campaign against drug abuse. Instead of merciless killings, setting up special tribunals could also be discussed in the media, which has not been paid due attention yet.
With the anti-drug drive still on, it would be unwise to make any conclusive comments at this point on the media’s role in the present crisis. Under pressure from social media, our mainstream media’s outlook is changing dramatically. We hope to see that our media would continue to play a pro-democratic and pro-people role which it has played during different national crises in the past.