Then and Now: Shamim Ashraf
Fellowship Year: 2007
Fellowship Host News Organization: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Current Position: Web Editor (Content), The Daily Star
Shamim Ashraf is a multinational, multimedia journalist based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is online editor of The Daily Star, the nation’s largest English-language newspaper with a paid circulation of 52,000-72,000 and a readership of approximately 300,000. He heads a 15-member online team.
Shamim, 36, started his career as a student correspondent for the newspaper when he was an undergraduate at Jahangirnagar University. Before returning to the Daily Star in early 2013, he worked in Bangkok for the Asia News Network (ANN), a network of 22 Asian dailies.
In 2008, he received the Human Rights Award from the Bangladesh Society for the Enforcement of Human Rights for his coverage on these issues. The same year, he introduced the first online newspaper for a television channel in Bangladesh, Desh TV.
Then and Now
Please describe the key challenges that you and fellow Bangladeshi journalists face. For example, are you able to get access to important government or corporate information? Are there safety issues?
As in other third world countries, journalism in Bangladesh remains one of the most challenging jobs due to lack of access to government and corporate information.
While government offices try to protect important information, many journalists can make their way to reach those by exhausting multiple sources. But it is even worse in the corporate sector, with very limited access to information. We now have “Right to Information” legislation. But with successive governments practicing the culture of secrecy, the possibility of getting much help from this is bleak.
Though there are many examples of journalists becoming targets of government and powerful quarters in Bangladesh over the years, we are noticing an alarming increase in recent months.
The so-called Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami spearheaded a hate campaign and attacked several journalists in the capital while demonstrating against the war crimes trial of its top leaders. A new fanatic group, Hefajat-e Islam, assaulted many journalists, including women reporters, as the media criticized their demands, which include curtailing women’s freedom and rights. Both groups targeted journalists and their vehicles during demonstrations across the country over the past few months.
Nadia Sharmin, a television journalist who came under Hefajat attack during a rally April 6 in the capital, is still undergoing hospital treatment.
What are the major changes you have seen in journalism in Bangladesh over the course of your career?
Journalism in Bangladesh has changed a lot in recent years with the launching of private TV channels and fast-expanding teledensity (the ratio of telephones per population). These have allowed people’s online presence, especially on social media platforms, and local media’s embracing the reality of the online journalism invasion.
While the mushrooming of TV channels made the competition tough, it also made the job of the print newspaper a little easier with the coverage of “almost everything” that’s taking place in the country. But by covering the developments the same day, the TV channels have put the newspapers on their toes, forcing them to come up with more analytical stories the next day.
Meanwhile, with more and more people online, media houses are using content from social media. While activists use social media to organize protests like the February youth upsurge known as the “Shahbagh protests,” journalists had many ideas and content waiting to be picked up. The coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, when I was working as a fellow with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, helped me a lot in planning coverage of the Shahbagh protests.
Bangladesh has been much in the news — most recently for tragedies in clothing factories. How do you assess the job that Bangladeshi journalists have done on these events, their causes and their aftermath? Do you think the local media have done meaningful investigative reporting?
No, the local media did not. While there is quite good reporting on the poor salary structures and inhumane living conditions of the garment workers, there was a lack of persistence by local media in improving working conditions. The media have done good jobs after accidents like fires or building collapses, but they have not followed up so that owners feel obligated to improve working conditions.
Many think there is self-censorship here since the textile industry is the biggest export earning sector of Bangladesh. Again, the factory owners seldom care for reporting in the local media. It seems they find the pressure more “threatening” when something is published by the international media.
What about the international press: How do you assess their coverage of such issues in Bangladesh?
It is very recently that the international media have cared about what’s going on inside the Bangladesh garment industry, especially safety and working conditions.
The collapse of Rana Plaza on April 24, which has become the worst disaster in the clothing industry, changed everything, drawing all eyes to Bangladesh, the world’s second-leading garment exporter.
While deaths in small fires or stampedes at fire alarms were not that uncommon at garment units, major incidents like the collapse of Spectrum Garments building in Savar in 2005, which left at least 85 workers killed, or the crumbling of another building the next year, killing 21, could not move the international community or buyers enough to take action.
While many international newspapers carried reports on the recent tragedies, not all of them cared to dig much into what led to such tragedies like the New York Times did since the fire at Tazreen Fashions on Nov. 24, 2012.
How did the Friendly Fellowship experience have impact on your life — professionally and personally? How has it helped you accomplish your goals?
The fellowship turned me ambitious as a journalist and made me aware of how much more I need to learn. It instilled in me a hunger to tap into myriad new developments in journalism — to be specific, in new media.
The greatest opportunity at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was to work with different sections of a newspaper — a newspaper of such standards — and to learn a lot not only about reporting but also writing.
I closely observed the subbing (editing) of my stories and was fascinated to see how good a report can become if a good editor handles it with care. Together, all these skills – reporting, writing and subbing – made me what I’m today: head of the online section of the most prestigious English-language daily of Bangladesh.
Observing the fast-changing media landscape — marked by declines in newspaper circulation, layoffs in major U.S. media houses and, most important, a fast digital convergence — it is then that I developed a keen interest in online journalism.
My close following of digital journalism trends helps me a lot in my role as online editor at The Daily Star, the leader in this arena here in Bangladesh. Now, all Bangladesh newspapers have online portals, though only a few update the portals around the clock like we do. We receive a lot of user-generated content in the form of comments, reactions, story ideas and original stories, which we use for our various platforms – magazines and weekly supplements.
What are the most important things you learned on your fellowship?
Maintaining journalistic ethics and ensuring accuracy: These make me check facts several times, make sure my information is accurate, and that the report is focused.
As a result of the fellowship, do you approach journalism differently?
Never before my stint as an Alfred Friendly Fellow had I felt with my heart that a journalist’s first and foremost aim should be informing people as best as s/he can.
Seniors explained it and tried to make us aware of it and act accordingly, but I started to feel an urge from within only after I came back from the fellowship.
Thereafter, I switched to online journalism, observing that with the squeezing of space for print newspapers and the massive fall in revenue, it is online journalism that can provide us with unlimited space and exciting ways to keep people informed. It can also engage the audience and accommodate what they have to say on the issues.
We now have had seven fellows from Bangladesh. What contribution has the Friendly program made to promoting higher standards of journalism there?
The Alfred Friendly Fellows from Bangladesh are working in very responsible positions, both at home and abroad.
Now working with BBC Bangla Service in London, 1995 fellow Masud Hasan Khan is an encouragement for many young journalists in Bangladesh. 2000 Fellow Raffat Rashid heads the most popular lifestyle magazine in Bangladesh. Faruq Faisel, 1990 fellow, is engaged in development work, while 1993 fellow Philip Gain heads the Society for Environment and Human Development, a nonprofit organization working on environment, development and human rights issues, which does a lot of journalistic work. All of them contributed to raise the standard of journalism in Bangladesh by emulating the best practices they experienced on their fellowships.
What is your favorite fellowship memory?
Attending a White House briefing was a significant event. But I still cannot forget how worried a group of U.S. citizens were when I was giving a lecture at the Indiana Council on World Affairs in 2007 on the political situation in Bangladesh under an army-backed, caretaker government.
Humble and caring, those who attended the program were throwing scores of questions at me about the life struggles of our people and ways to overcome the criminalization of politics. I had a similar experience when I later spoke at the Greater Reading World Affairs Council. I will always remember how sincerely they wished they could help my little-known country hundreds of miles away.
Does the fellowship help build understanding between Bangladesh and the U.S.?
It definitely does. On the personal level, I made some of the most important friends of my life. Professionally, it was a golden opportunity to observe the U.S. standard of journalism and take full advantage of it.
Apart from these, I mixed it up with many Americans and observed their lifestyles. It gave a full view of the U.S., which was giving a deliberate and sincere push to mend its relationship with the Muslims whom it had distanced following the 9/11 attacks. I hope the U.S. succeeds in this.
The Daily Star online is available at http://www.thedailystar.net/. Shamim Ashraf can be contacted via Facebook or LinkedIn.
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