Carl Jylland-Halverson, a Fort Wayne resident, is a psychologist involved in interfaith dialogue and refugee and disaster services.
Democracy is threatened when freedom of the press is attacked. There is no doubt that there is fake news, there is manufactured news for political purposes, and there is sensational news. However, when journalists are attacked by political leaders for the purpose of dividing an electorate, then an informed citizenry and even informed decision-making may cease to exist.
I would ask that Americans look at the latest developments in South Asia for examples of this but, alas, they are not being covered. In Bangladesh, on July 29, two high school students were killed when a bus driver recklessly hit them. Anyone who has traveled in Bangladesh knows there is much to see, but getting from one point to another can be dangerous. Road conditions, a lack of rules of the road, and a simple lack of clear signage and traffic lights result in chaos.
What has this got to do with a threatened press? After the deaths of the two students, high school students in Dhaka, all of Bangladesh took to the streets demanding better roads and driving conditions. The streets were flooded with young people demanding the most radical of changes, improve the roads. The government responded not with a roundtable discussion or a citizen town hall meeting. The government responded with force.
Police have assaulted students. Bangladesh Chhatra League, a student group aligned with the government, has attacked protesters. The numbers are not clear, but at least 25 students have been injured. Doctors in the streets report the number of injured is much higher. There are multiple reports of students being attacked and severely beaten. At least four students have been killed and four girls raped. Bus drivers are refusing to enter Dhaka, effectively cutting off the capital from the rest of the nation.
Most of the world is unaware of the situation. The government shut down the internet for 24 hours. The media are not covering the protests or the attacks. Citizens are reluctant to post on social media out of fear of having their sites shut down.
So why should we care about what is happening in Bangladesh? For starters, the days of viewing Bangladesh as just another poor underdeveloped nation are gone. It is now considered the “Fifth Asian Tiger.” Like the earlier Tigers, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Taiwan, this nation is industrializing. Its annual growth is 6 percent. With an extremely young population equal to half the population of the United States packed in a country the size of Illinois, stability is important to all of its neighbors. It is the center of refugee services for the Rohingya fleeing neighboring Myanmar. Its neighbors, India and China, are the new giants of this century.
When I was in Bangladesh, I was impressed with how welcoming the people were. In a nation almost exclusively Muslim, I was introduced to Catholic priests and given tours of churches and Hindu temples. Today, freedom of the press is threatened and “us and them” thinking is a growing part of the political landscape. A free press could counter this dangerous polarization.
My prayer is that this crisis is momentary and that the government decides to work with the students for the benefit of all. In the meantime I hope our citizens do not become increasingly comfortable hearing leaders describe our press as “the enemy of the people.” The press can be superficial, they can be biased, but make no mistake, they are the unarmed defenders of our democracy.
Since this article was written Bangladesh citizens have contacted colleagues around the world. The world press is now hearing the cries of students and covering the violence. The question is, how long must the world press speak out before the Bangladesh government listens to its citizenry?