HIGHLIGHTS

  • He became a Marxist and, for twenty-one years, edited Dhaka’s socialist weekly Ekota. When communism’s failures gave him second thoughts, he withdrew from leftist politics to concentrate on journalism.
  • In 1998 he founded Prothom Alo, or First Light, a daily newspaper. Rahman established Prothom Alo’s credibility by exposing the missteps of both the government and its foes, and by aggressively covering corruption, terrorism, and human rights violations.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes his wielding the power of the press to crusade against acid throwing and to stir Bangladeshis to help its many victims.

 CITATION

Few crimes are so vicious as acid throwing. When flung upon the face, common acids used by jewelers and in battery shops and tanneries melt the skin and eat into the bone and eyes, leaving victims permanently disfigured. A life of ostracism and shame awaits them. In Bangladesh, some three hundred people each year lose their natural-born faces in such attacks. Most of them are young women who have offended their attackers by denying them sex or marriage or suitable dowries. But others are maimed in family feuds or land disputes or local rivalries. This hideous crime is new to Bangladesh and has grown alarmingly in the past decade. As editor of Bangladesh’s largest-circulation Bangla-language newspaper, Matiur Rahman has stirred the nation to respond.

Rahman was born in 1944 and grew up in the era of decolonization and fervent nationalism that gave birth to East Pakistan and then Bangladesh. He became a Marxist and, for twenty-one years, edited Dhaka’s socialist weekly Ekota. When communism’s failures gave him second thoughts, he withdrew from leftist politics to concentrate on journalism. In 1998 he founded Prothom Alo, or First Light, a daily newspaper. Rahman established Prothom Alo’s credibility by exposing the missteps of both the government and its foes, and by aggressively covering corruption, terrorism, and human rights violations. The newspaper’s constructive advocacy and Rahman’s own unsparing editorials attracted legions of readers. Today it reaches two million of them.

Prothom Alo naturally covered the alarming rise of acid throwing in Bangladesh. But in 2000 a heartrending case involving a fifteen-year-old girl riveted Rahman’s attention. He determined to harness the resources of his newspaper to fight the scourge.

In prominent daily appeals, Rahman declared war on acid throwers and called upon his readers to contribute to the Prothom Alo Aid Fund for acid victims. With scarred women at his side, he solicited donations at rallies and press conferences and called upon celebrities and volunteers to carry the appeal throughout the country. People from all walks of life and even Bangladeshis abroad became donors. Rahman acknowledged each small gift in the newspaper and steered help directly to the victims: money for burn treatments, plastic surgery, legal fees, and living expenses, plus new dwellings for some and income-generating assets such as milking cows, sewing machines, cultivable lands, and shops for others. At the same time, Prothom Alo pressured the government to strengthen laws against acid attacks and the reckless sale of dangerous chemicals.

The response to Rahman’s appeal reassured him that “the society is not sleeping.” By June 2005, some 8.2 million taka had been coursed to over one hundred victims. Moreover, in 2002 the country’s Acid Crimes Prevention Act and Acid Control Act stiffened penalties for acid throwers and tightened licensing requirements for acid sales.

Rahman has been described as “the navigator of positive social and cultural change” in Bangladesh. He has used his authority as editor of Prothom Alo not only to fight the crime of acid throwing but also to raise public consciousness about HIV/AIDS and drug abuse, and to reveal the role of certain Muslim extremists in fomenting militancy and violence. His provocative independence comes at a price. He is regularly harassed and threatened, and the government itself has withdrawn advertising from his newspaper and taken him to court in reprisal for Prothom Alo’s critical reporting.

Despite these pressures, Rahman aspires to no other vocation. Readers look to Prothom Alo as “a hope against hope,” he says. “I work to use it for the cause of the people.”

In electing Matiur Rahman to receive the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for journalism, literature, and creative communication arts, the board of trustees recognizes his wielding the power of the press to crusade against acid throwing and to stir Bangladeshis to help its many victims.

 RESPONSE

This auspicious ceremony will remain as one of the most joyous moments in my life and in the life of those who helped to build the daily Prothom Alo. We are grateful to the Roman Magsaysay Award Foundation for honoring the paper and myself with such a prestigious award.
The world of mass media today is in turmoil. The post World War II intellectual edifice of international laws, norms and practices are today under serious challenge as the bipolar world learns to deal with one super power in the international scene. The war on terror and the traditional values of liberalism and open society, on which the Western media flourished for so long, are on an apparent collision course. There are clear signs of erosion on the fundamental values of individual freedom and national independence under the pressure to ensure national security, both real and imaginary.

In the developing world new social and economic challenges, the ever-increasing burden of poverty and the marginalization of the poor have brought the media into deeper questions about their relevance and purpose. Rising corruption, the nexus between politics and crime, disregard for the law by the rich and the powerful and the clear danger of social outburst caused by neglect and continued discrimination have revealed, as never before, the possible constructive role that an independent and socially committed media can play.

It is within these changing times and demands that the role of Prothom Alo has to be judged. From the very outset we were fully aware that Bangladesh needed a more independent media voice than was so far available. The country needed a newspaper that was bolder in its articulation of the problems that faced us, and more imaginative in its thinking as to how to solve them. Encompassing it all, we needed a more socially responsible newspaper that combined the core value of press freedom with the goal of democracy and people’s prosperity.

Thus was Prothom Alo born, and thus has grown its relevance, credibility and popularity. ‘People’ are at the center of our journalism. We never forget for a moment that they are our strength, and it is for them that we exist. Hence, all our energies are devoted to making the paper closer to the needs of the masses.

We do not dwell on dreams alone; we lend a helping hand to the people, we stand by them in solving their day-to-day problems.

Following are examples of some of the initiatives we took.

1. For the scholastic development of children, Prothom Alo helped the national committee for the Mathematics Olympiad in raising funds and in organizing regional and national Mathematics Olympiad competitions across the country for the last three years. A total of fifteen thousand students have participated in 2004-2005. For the first time, a team from Bangladesh participated in the World Mathematics Olympiad in Mexico.

2. We started a campaign to increase sensitivity towards the Bangla language and culture by initiating language competitions at the regional and national levels. Four thousand students from 333 schools participated in this program.Besides this, we regularly help young students to organize debates all over the country.

3. During the terrible flood last year, a cross section of people deposited in cash and in kind aid for flood victims that amounted to US$166,700. We distributed food and clothing in 44 districts. When the floodwaters receded, we, as part of our rehabilitation effort, distributed bamboo, wood, and seeds and fertilizer for farming, as well as chairs, tables and other amenities for schools; doctors were sent and medicines were distributed.

4. We helped Tipu Sultan, a journalist severely injured by the political cadres, in association with The Daily Star, by raising the money needed for his treatment.

5. By raising funds we have also extended our help to children and young students affected by cancer and other pernicious diseases.

It is these positive, constructive and timely interventions that have made Prothom Alo a symbol of hope to our people.

In accepting the honor that you have bestowed upon us, we promise to commit ourselves further to serve our people to gain greater freedom and prosperity. We will strive to expand our social commitment and take up newer roles in the area of human rights and economic development.

I would like to declare that one-third of the award money will go to the Prothom Alo Aid Fund for acid victims, one-third will be deposited to the anti-drug and HIV awareness campaign, and the rest will be used to create a new fund for deceased and injured journalists who are victims of political persecution.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award will certainly inspire all who are a part of Prothom Alo. We will continue our work for the transformation of society. Our main ethos is: ‘Wherever there is good, Prothom Alo is with it.’ We will remain true to this goal.

 BIOGRAPHY

LIVING in the throes of his country’s turbulent history, he has staked out a position from which he can exercise an influence in creating a better society for his people. His is the position of a journalist who has practiced a craft and vocation in bold, expansive terms for more than four decades.

Matiur Rahman was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata), India, on January 2, 1946. The place of his birth is circumstantial. Before the partitioning of India in 1947, his maternal grandfather was a member of the provincial assembly of Bengal and Matiur’s parents were sojourning in Calcutta, where his grandfather was based, when Matiur was born. When he was around two or three years old, however, his parents returned to their family home in Bangshal, in the old part of Dhaka where Matiur would live practically all his life.

When Matiur was born, World War II was at its height. While the war did not have the kind of impact on India that it had in other Asian countries (the Japanese had started to move troops into northeast India but were quickly thrown back), it weakened British imperial power and accelerated the process of decolonization in the Indian subcontinent. Decolonization proved to be a highly complicated and contentious process because of the Hindu-Muslim feud. It would radically change the political landscape and see Matiur and his family transition from being subjects of British India to citizens of Pakistan, and then Bangladesh.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)