Text by Kamal Ahmed
Co-writer of the project safety and security guidelines for journalists
It was a fairly quite morning in Karwanbazar, the media hub in heartland of a commercial district in Dhaka. It was relatively much quieter than any other day because Fridays were the first of two-day weekend and most Muslim men avoid any other commitments so that they can attend the weekly mid-day prayer at mosques. But, journalists have to work and if it happens to be a TV channel than Fridays are no exception for them.
I was invited to a media house at Karwanbazar to give a talk on Challenges Ahead for the Media on that Friday morning. Despite my worries about the safety record of the BSEC building in which that channel was housed, I went there to share my thoughts and experiences that I have learnt over decades in international media. When I entered the building, it appeared to be a very strange place where there was only one point of entry and exit and stairs and lifts sit side by side in the middle. Three sides of the building are totally sealed off and there was no emergency exit. The eleven-storey building accommodates about a dozen offices and the TV outlet is housed on two floors in the middle. Despite safety worries my session went well and on my way out I met the editor of a Bangla daily, the country’s lone tabloid, Manabzamin, Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, who was also invited for another session.
After an hour of returning to residence, I got a call from Matiur Rahman Chowdhury, clearly shaken and nervous, who told me that he had just escaped an inferno. It was the second time that the BSEC building was in flames from electrical short-circuit. The first fire in 2007 caused four deaths and dozens of injuries. About a thousand people had to be evacuated from the building using various methods including airlifting from the rooftop. The second fire, in October 2014, also caused minor injuries and suspension of broadcast, but luckily no life was lost. There was a third fire in 2017 at that building, but was brought under control swiftly. Unfortunately, that building has not been modified for making it safe and the channel is still housed there.
This is not an exception, rather represents a very common scenario in the media sector in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, when fire safety and factory hazards of the garments industry get huge attention in our media, it largely ignores its own safety risks.
During my 15 years work at the BBC, I had learnt and realised the importance of knowing safety hazards and assessing security risks and preparing to prevent or tackle them. In 1999, during the first term of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangladesh had for the first time experienced a series of deadly attacks at public gatherings by Islamist extremists when musical events in Jessore and Dhaka were hit leaving dozens of people dead and scores injured. At that time, I was the BBC’s Dhaka correspondent and my manager’s immediate response was to deploy security experts to assess risks and take precautionary measures according to their advice.
The contrast is clear. Local institutions do not take safety and security issues seriously and are reluctant to invest in improving conditions. Individuals employed in the media sector are either unaware of the risks or due to job insecurity chose to ignore it.
In this context, when MRDI’s Hasibur Rahman told me about the initiative to produce a handbook on safety and security of journalists, I felt a kind of excitement that finally we are catching up to the realities of risks out there for every journalists whether s/he pursues a story in the field or at the office or home. After reviewing the handbook, I can say with confidence, that if followed sincerely, it will help manage risks in such way that protects life and avoid injuries and harm. Ultimately, it will help journalists to perform better in a safe and secure way. According to CPJ, since 1992, at least 20 journalists have lost their lives in Bangladesh and more suffered life-changing injuries. Recent mass-assault on journalists covering student uprising demanding road safety was another sad and harsh reminder of the professional hazards and risks that exist in Bangladesh. So, now it’s time to say no more and end ignoring risks.