The most interesting battle in the 2018 elections was not between the AL and the BNP which turned out to be a no contest at all going by the results. It was between two TV station and their owners who were part of the electoral war from two sides. Salman Rahman of BEXIMCO group is one of the top businessman of the country and an adviser to the PM on many matters. He was an MP candidate from the ruling party AL and was contesting Ms. Salma Islam from JP, a sitting member the government backed Opposition party in the previous parliament. Salma’s husband is Nurul Islam Babul who owns the Jamuna group including Jamuna TV.
The Jatiyo Party (JP) is sometimes considered a B-team of the Government party. It is headed by ex-President Gen. Ershad, currently about to serve as the leader of the Opposition in the ensuing parliament with government approval. While politically, it was an in-house issue of sorts, the electoral rivalry was real and even conflict ridden.
Media, money and muscle
Both business groups are big and nobody can say who is bigger but Salman is also close to the PM while Babul is close to the ground that is the king of the real estate business, Bangladesh’s most lucrative sector. Being close to JP is not considered anti-AL at all and it’s generally understood that those contesting are also close to the AL or have their nod.
So when Salma Islam became an MP in 2014, an election which was not participated by the BNP and was not a contested one, she had her run. But this time around, it was a more ‘serious’ one with a challenge expected from the BNP though it never transpired going by the results.
However, Salman’s desire to be an MP was strong and more resolute as he is one of the richest man in town but who had lost the elections several times before. He is the Adviser to the PM but couldn’t get enough votes from his rural constituency. So this was a matter of prestige.
Babul on the other hand is a huge presence and the illegal information market – read rumours- has it that he has more money than anyone except the Sobhans who own another media house, the East–West group, whose interest is in land as well. So he was not fazed by the fact that he was facing the PM’s adviser and vowed to carry on.
Vandalized media team and candidate withdrawal
Salman owns Independent TV (ITV) and Babul owns Jamuna TV and both are doing well. So Jamuna sent a huge army of TV and media crew to cover the elections and try to establish his presence in the campaigning. The idea was that seeing so much media workers, the Opposition would not try anything “unconstitutional.” Jamuna loyalists say he was hoping but Salman sternly denied that anything of that sort was ever part of his plans.
What we know is that a bunch of people attacked the camera crew and vandalized the media units there. It was as good a signal as could be that Babul/Jamuna was not intimidating anyone and nobody was afraid to act.
Babul’s print media outlet Jugantor reported all this but the writing was on the wall. Though Jamuna was doing extensive media coverage of the elections, it was the Babul- Salman fight that looked much more attention grabbing worth. As the media war escalated, it became clear that the stakes were higher than expected. Meanwhile, Salman visited Babul and it was thought that peace had been brokered. However, as both went into full drive, and the election day arrived, Jamuna was hit below by belt by an unexpected quarter.
The cable operators took Jamuna off from its service meaning it had no public distribution or viewership on TV. This meant that someone with enormous influence put pressure on the cable operators to yank Jamuna off and caused an over ground broadcasting blackout.
It became a web TV for a few days including on the all- important Election day. Babul went to media and declared that Salma Islam was withdrawing from the elections due to the reasons cited. Salman Rahman had a smooth sail but going by the results trend, Salman would have won anyway.
Two days later Jamuna’s services were restored.
Any optional media in the land of giants
The incident shows how money and media comes together but in case of Bangladesh more so. Given its informal system of governance, any conflict between two powerhouses in business and finance can turn into a battle in other sectors as well including media and not even on opposing sides.
The incidence shows that big media can’t be operated without access to the top brass of the ruling class and moneyed sector. Those who run it do so under the umbrella of protection and surveillance of the powers that be so media policies are largely an internal issue of the governing class not based on public interest or right to be informed.
There are other sections and groups in society who would also like to see AV media that is not part of ruling class opinions, parties or sections. Nor do they wish to consume products that are politically biased towards one side or the other.
Given the circumstances, that is probably not possible given the existing situation. That means alternative media, channels and forms that are already on the rise will increase even more. How that will inter-act with existing media scenario - consumer and controller - waits to be seen.