Shahbagh: the blind spot

© Arif Hafiz
© Arif Hafiz

A line in the esteemed Jyoti Rahman’s otherwise excellent article made me sit up.
“…But to me, it is yet another case of the rest of the world caring little about Bangladesh. We really are not a country others particularly care about.”

My mind went back to the early days of winter, and the sheer flood of garments-fire articles that Jim Yardley and Julfikar Manik gleefully poured out in the weeks after Tazreen. So, in the age of search, why not test a hunch? These are the results.

20 pieces in total have been published in the NYTimes on the subject of Bangladeshi factory fires, including 5 in November, 10 in December, 5 more in January. Among them were:

– 2 LENS slideshows within 4 days of each other
– A couple of blog posts, a couple of op-eds
– A RoomForDebate forum with 8 pieces in there alone, Professor Bhagwati declaring in his headline “Blame Bangladesh”. (I counted the whole Forum as one, otherwise the total would exceed 25.)

By the austere standards of the NYT and Western media, surely this counts as blanket coverage of an insignificant country at the other end of the world? Even taking into account Tazreen’s Walmart connection, two dozen articles in three months seems like overkill.


And how many pieces on the most consequential protest in Bangladesh in 22 years? Just 2, in two and a half weeks. And that’s it. The first one came more than a week after Shahbag started. I don’t think the South Asia correspondent Jim Yardley ever bothered to get off his couch in New Delhi for the entire duration of this little kerfuffle.

What many of us asserted this past fortnight stands. Bangladesh only counts when it fulfills age-old stereotypes of burning factories, sinking ferries, raging cyclones, dying people. When it comes to these same people taking agency for their own lives, young people in the world’s fourth-largest Muslim country standing up unabashedly for secular values in one of the most joyous and uplifting examples of non-violent protest in modern times, the NYT and the rest of the Western media went curiously absent.

Full List of NYT pieces


December 2012 (OP-ED) (OP-ED) (ROOMFORDEBATE)

January 2013

6 thoughts on “Shahbagh: the blind spot

  1. ” Bangladesh only counts when it fulfills age-old stereotypes of burning factories, sinking ferries, raging cyclones, dying people”.

    I don’t think that sinking ferries, raging cyclones, dying people in Bangladesh gets that much coverage in western media at all. Many of us has pointed out before that Bangladeshis dying in hundreds in accidents and in thousands in natural disaster get very little extended coverage. I don’t recall much coverage about devastating cyclone Sidor in CNN, the network that specializes in disaster porn.

    The fact is, garments factory fire and death is different. Hundreds of millions of North Americans and Europeans buy Bangladeshi made cheap clothes from their superstores every year. What is happening at the source of this stream of supply chain is news for the consumers and media is in the business of selling news.

    Factory conditions and industrial horror in Asian sweatshops have been a staple news in Western media long before globalization and outsourcing became buzzwords.

    1. When people write about how many articles were written about garments factory fires and why Shahbag is not being covered as much — they seem to show no understanding of what makes the world go round— and precisely where Bangladesh stands in killing hundreds of people to make that world go around so beautifully. The world would pay attention if ever a flood of humanity ran to the EPZs of Bangladesh….one after another….

  2. Firstly, it’s great to see return of a blogosphere dialogue — takes me back to good old days of UV. 🙂

    Substantively, Shubinoy, you raise a good point. Perhaps Bangladesh does count on some matters (though as Shafiq says, not necessarily on all the matters you list). The question then is, what determines what these matters are?

    Western/Northern media has a particular interest in labour issues, not just in Bangladesh but elsewhere in the third world. This has a lot to do with domestic politics of the west — recession, labour movement, protectionism etc. That there are factory fires in somewhere in the global South is the issue. Bangladesh is not.

    What does an American or British reader care if large crowd in a 3rd world megacity is out in the street demanding justice for some crime in its violent past?

  3. Or Shahbagh was actually an inflated spot or an over-hyped phenomena? An overwhelming majority of TV and print media sailed safely along the thinking of the citizens of Dhaka. Some of the top media played ownership role in the movement. Reports in those newspaper pages felt like leaflets of the movements. They shrugged off all types of objectivity while reporting about Shahbagh rally. Can it be possible that reporters of those overseas media looked at the event keeping themselves detached from the passion the movement invoked? Is it possible that when you take the passion away from Shahbagh rally, it does not deserve any more coverage that it already got in foreign press?

  4. Dear Manush
    Had you ever been in the Shahbag, you would have noticed the fact, which might have erased your opinion. It was not inflated or over-hyped.

  5. No, I don’t think the international press is not writing about this because they don’t care about Bangladesh. I think the press loves Bangladesh and wants to write about Bangladesh – but what can they write in this case? The protest is supported by the government, and is focused on one target: death penalty of one war criminal. If the protest had wider goals that really meant significant change in Bangladesh – for example, the announcement of a rational, educated, progressive opposition party focused on transparency and delivering public services — to challenge both of the kleptocratic parties in the coming elections — then I am pretty sure all the news agencies would cover it. Just think about the kind of media frenzy around Yunus and micro-credit — you see, change that would result from something like that was palpable for journalists around the world…

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