Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
Monajat Uddin is a rural grassroots reporter modernizing the field of journalism in Bangladesh.
Monajatuddin grew up in the villages. When he was fourteen his father died, and, as the oldest of six sons, he assumed responsibility for the family. In order to put his brothers through school, he had to quit and take jobs as a bookbinder, a street peddler, and a teacher. Eventually, he discovered that journalism was the profession that best suited his interests. The strength and determination that formed in his difficult adolescence led him to ask hard questions and see new possibilities for his new calling.
Monajat is a working rural journalist. Over the course of twenty years, he has developed a uniquely detailed, investigative grassroots method of reporting that he calls "situation reporting." Monajat immerses himself in the communities he writes about, but he maintains an unbiased detachment by collecting extensive objective data for his reports. This method allows him not only to write in-depth on socioeconomic conditions but to present his readers with a rare understanding of the realities Bangladeshi villagers face, both natural and manmade, and how they perceive and feel about their lives. Situation reporting is essentially journalistic blitzkrieg. Monajat will suddenly appear in a village and settle in an ordinary villager's home as a paying guest. After an initial period of wandering the village and its fields, probing a broad sample of the residents to spot issues, he recruits and trains a team of ten or so educated young villagers to conduct an extensive and vigorous interview program following a set of questions that he has developed. This list typically covers basic topics such as health, income, and current and past land ownership. It then goes on to draw out the facts surrounding whatever issues Monajat plans to make the focus of his forthcoming stories. How have the villagers responded to the new family planning program? Why? What has actually happened with the flood relief funds? And so on. As his volunteer army is out interviewing, so is he. He carefully seeks out all sides--those with and without land, government officials, housewives, etc. However, because he has his volunteers, he can do a thorough job of fact gathering in two days rather than the two weeks he estimates it would otherwise take him. Using local young people serves several other important purposes as well. It protects against anything important remaining hidden long. It gets a group of the village's most able and aware young people to look sharply and think about what is going on in their community. In effect, the process allows Monajat to hold a mirror up to the community he visits, which is not always a comfortable sight. Week after week, Monajat inserts into the country's thinking his factual, quietly stated pictures of reality where it matters most. The reports are beginning to have measurable impact: new legislation regarding child marriage is one change that is largely attributable to Monajat's influence. The area where Monajat would most like his influence felt, however, is in the field of journalism itself, especially rural journalism. "Rural journalism in Bangladesh is not a proper profession," he says. "I dream of changing that. Rural journalists now simply report events--an epidemic or a disappointingly small harvest. I want them to be aware of the social and family changes taking place." To make this impact, Monajat wants to expand his informal, albeit increasingly frequent, hosting of visiting colleagues who come to see his technique in action. To reach the country's five thousand rural reporters, he is thinking of a formal on site apprenticeship program backed by a number of publications.
Most journalism in Bangladesh and, for that matter, across much of the region seems to have been held over from the nineteenth century. The stories report on the comings and goings of major personalities, on seminars and meetings, and, especially, on political moves. The mass of the population is left faceless and voiceless. Partly this is because journalism is only beginning to emerge as a profession. Its members typically have not been trained specifically for the work and therefore have only a loose sense of the opportunity and responsibility that is theirs. And yet the country's need for good rural journalism is enormous. Eighty five percent of Bangladeshis live in the rural areas, which are far away from the country's policy making elites. More than any other profession, journalism can bridge this chasm.
Monajat's strategy for helping Bangladesh develop a more modern, socially aware brand of journalism divides into two parts: broad outreach and direct training. To make his model more visible, Monajat has recently published a collection of his reports in book form and has so far sold over 3,000 copies. His continued production of provocative reports will also spread, and he willingly lectures at such forums as the Bangladesh Press Institute. Probably most important, he gives his time freely to help his colleagues understand and master his techniques. They are always welcome to come as apprentices or observers on his situation sweeps, and some twenty did in 1990. He also responds willingly to initiatives to help colleagues with their stories elsewhere. Of these training approaches, Monajat has most confidence in the doing it together apprentice format. He hopes to systematize and expand it so he can accommodate the larger numbers he hopes to attract over the coming years.