A Media Academy Grows in Bangladesh
Dhaka—3 February 2010
A few months ago I received a call from Dr. Shahidul Alam, a mentor and colleague who has become a friend. Alam, an accomplished and peripatetic photographer, journalist, and activist, invited me to Dhaka to join a team charged with setting up a media academy for Bangladeshi journalists. Such an academy had been part of his plan for years, but he’d been consumed by other projects—building a career as well as a world-class photo agency, a degree-granting school of photography, and an international photo festival.
Years ago, he identified the mission: Create a training institute for aspiring and working journalists that would raise the generally low professional and ethical standards in Bangladesh. The core mission, however, would be a civic one: To inculcate in students a sense of responsibility to the public and a firm commitment to building a more democratic society.
A tall order, to be sure, but a familiar one. In collaboration with colleagues, advisers, and workers, the Drik photo agency, Pathshala South Asian Institute of Photography, and Chobi Mela photo festival have become prime movers in Bangladesh. They have also become internationally recognized entities. Pathshala graduates fill staff photographer positions at the leading newspapers; along with their Drik peers, they field assignments from abroad and shoot for outfits like European Press Agency, The Guardian, New York Times, and others.
Alam had signed on other “media experts”—David Brewer and DJ Clark, two media trainers with years of international experience, and Arnob Chakrabarty, a Bangladesh-born Dutch journalist, who had committed to three years in Dhaka and was shipping his family over. Was I in, he asked me as we Skyped from our respective homes in Brooklyn and Dhaka? I couldn’t give him a quick answer.
I love Dhaka and I fear Dhaka. I have made good friends on previous trips, in 2002 and 2008. I’ve had life-changing experiences here—seen amazing photography, heard brilliant and inspiring lectures. I have learned to dart through honking and careering vehicles—cars, rickshaws, mini taxis, buses, trucks, motorcycles, three-wheeled cycles—without hyperventilating. Or (so far) getting killed. But I must admit that many of the everyday sights still shock my bourgeois American sensibility.
I’m often transfixed by the visible signs of privation, the pollution, and the glaring disparities in the distribution of wealth. The air is thick with dust and fumes; trash litters sidewalks in most parts of the city; rail-thin rickshaw pullers weave through shiny Toyota sedans, their well-scrubbed upper-middle-class occupants peering out the windows; beat-up secondhand buses crammed with riders ply the streets.
Bangladeshi friends tell me that visiting Europeans and Americans like me fixate on these things, which are undeniably real and dire, but that we completely miss the country’s hopeful and positive aspects—its tremendous human and natural resources, its potential. Moreover, they insist, there is nothing inevitable about poverty in Bangladesh. Rather, it is a symptom of a tragically corrupt and dysfunctional political system. Three decades of abysmal leadership and a kind of brutal pettiness that keeps the two main parties at each other’s throats have retarded progress and warped development. That conflict is rooted deeply in the nation’s short history. Party #1, the Awami League, descends from the secular movement that fought Pakistan for Bangladesh’s independence. Some stalwarts of party #2, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, were aligned with Pakistan during the war, even though the party’s founder fought with the secularists in the liberation struggle.
In theory, Bangladesh has freedom of the press. In practice, news organizations tend to be politically partisan and aligned with power brokers, or simply timid. Successive governments have stifled critical and independent reporting, leaving only a handful of outlets with genuine editorial chutzpah. The media academy’s goal is nothing short of revolutionizing that system.
I accepted Alam’s offer and joined the core group: Alam, Chakrabarty, Clark, Shameem Ahmed, formerly a prominent news reader in Bangladesh and now a media and management consultant; Erin Hollaway, former managing editor of National Geographic Adventure (and my girlfriend); and two advisers hired by the Goethe-Institut, a potential funder, Dietmar Zimmermann and Ute Mattigkeit. Brewer, head of Media Helping Media, a UK-based group that provides training to media workers in countries where freedom of expression is under threat, participated via email and Skype.
We held a series of meetings over five days, first to get a sense of the media landscape in Bangladesh and then to help shape Alam’s vision. A consensus was reached early on that the academy should be integrated into the well-established structure of the Pathshala photo school rather than starting from scratch. We agreed upon a swift rollout focused on TV journalists because of the immediate need: Licenses for ten stations were recently granted by the government. They are scheduled to begin broadcasting next year. In other words, there’s a market.
It was decided that the academy would strive to respect the division of labor that exists in Bangladesh TV news at this point while also pushing the news media into the future. According to a 2006 AC Nielsen study cited by Chakrabarty, 41 percent of Bangladeshi households have a TV. There are 257 daily newspapers in this country of 150-plus million. But there are also cutting-edge news services such as bdnews24.com, which performs just as its name suggests, providing web content—news, entertainment, stock quotes—in Bangla and English, plus subscription-only reports sent to mobile phones. Hookups with Thomson Reuters, Deutsche Welle, and BBC provide fresh international news.
Four initial modules were hammered out for the media academy: Producing + Content Editing; Camera; Video Editing; Multimedia Reporting. Other modules will be added as the program finds its footing. Print, radio, and investigative reporting are currently on the list of necessary inclusions.
Each module will stress a set of essential functional skills. Camera operators, for instance, will gain proficiency with a range of ENG equipment, broadcast/streaming formats, software packages, and videography and audio techniques. But all modules will incorporate a set of core competencies: storytelling, visual language, media standards and practices, research and reporting, and teamwork.
Zimmermann and Mattigkeit recommended starting small, with an intensive two-week workshop for journalists. But other participants asserted that skills taught in such short sessions seldom stick. Based on his experience setting up training courses across Asia, Clark proposed a program that would extend over 12 weeks but would be full-time for only two, allowing working journalists to participate. Each module will begin with a six-week introductory course designed to bring students up to similar skill levels. A two-week, full-time intensive training will follow, with classroom and hands-on components led by international and local trainers. The course will continue with a four-week practicum during which students produce an actual TV program, either in collaboration across modules or in situ at their organizations. Instruction and guidance from trainers will be provided as needed in personal meetings and/or via email and phone.
Alam is now seeking partners that could offer the academy degree-granting status, he said. Down the road, he may attempt to navigate Bangladesh’s Byzantine educational bureaucracy and apply for such status. The ultimate goal is to offer a three-year master’s program that would incorporate theoretical courses. But the front-end goals are clear: Raise funds for equipment, hire qualified local trainers (they do exist), flesh out the curriculum, and get butts in seats. If all goes according to plan, the first group will start in May or June.
Formal business plans and a more extensive market study are in the works, but Alam (and the core group) have consulted with media execs and practitioners. Some have expressed lukewarm interest. Others have offered tentative buy-in. A few have actually committed to providing students and facilities.
During a five-hour mother of all meetings called by Alam, news media executives, print and TV reporters, NGO representatives, educators, and media consultants floated strategies, ideas, and criticisms, as well as the occasional pointless bloviation. The country’s most prominent TV journalist, Munni Saha, who reported on last year’s bloody mutiny by members of the Bangladesh Rifles, a paramilitary force, was perhaps the most passionate (and mercifully succinct) about the academy. The country needs such an institution, she told the group, and people will pay—maybe not CEOs at first, who prefer to hire unskilled people because they are dirt cheap, but individuals who recognize both the Pathshala name and the urgent need for rigorous professional training.
Throughout the session, Alam listened, stepping in occasionally with vital bits of information and finally weighing in with a definitive pronouncement. “We need to be predictive and anticipate what’s going to happen,” he declared in a sonorous baritone. “I’m going to do it.” A few participants felt the need to drag on for another 30 minutes, but the rest of us were already dreaming of the buffet.
Negotiations continue, ground has been broken for a new building to house the academy, and trainers are being identified. If the success of Pathshala the photo school is anything to go by, the academy could very well become a major force in news media—in Bangladesh, in South Asia, and beyond.