Going off the beaten track in Bangladesh

Joy Reid was the recipient of an Asia New Zealand Foundation journalism travel grant.

Bangladesh has never been a country that has featured on my radar, or that of many New Zealanders. It’s among the world’s most-densely populated countries and is also one of its poorest. It’s also vulnerable to natural disasters and riddled with corruption, so what we do hear about the nation tends to centre on that.

But it is also a country of untold stories. I wanted to look at stories that were mostly focused on New Zealanders either working in Bangladesh or otherwise having an influence on the local people. I got to go off the beaten track and meet locals, most of whom had never encountered a film crew – let alone a white one.

Joy Reid  and Asia:NZ young leader Syed Hasan filming a story in Bangladesh.The trip wasn’t without its challenges – some of them hugely frustrating. 

We were unprepared for the level of involvement the Bangladeshi government insisted on having in our storytelling. It was only on arriving that we were told we were to have a government official travelling with us at all times, at our own (unbudgeted) expense. This was not mentioned by the embassy, despite us having been granted a specific journalist visa.

Our government official spoke very little English and asked for money, and I also struggled with some of his demands as they could have compromised story integrity.

Most issues we managed through compromises or translators, but we got into major difficulty over a story about the Padma Bridge. The story angle was innocently about the Kiwis working on such an impressive project.

However, the bridge itself is a highly controversial political issue, which has been shrouded in corruption allegations.  We had submitted this story proposal as part of our visa application, and the government expressed no concern until the day before we planned to shoot. Then we were suddenly told we were not allowed to film.

We tried to discuss this decision, but the language barrier proved problematic. We could only speak with the government official accompanying us, not those making the decisions. Our understanding is that what we were saying was not correctly relayed to them. 

The situation became even more complicated as our visa application was sponsored by World Vision Bangladesh.  (To get a journalist visa for Bangladesh, you have to be invited by a company.)

Because World Vision Bangladesh was helping with two stories, we were told it would “invite” us for the full trip, saving us having to get multiple invitations.

Though the bridge story actually had nothing to do with World Vision, their “sponsorship” led to government officials visiting a worker’s home and threatening World Vision’s ongoing aid work if we filmed the story.

Given this reaction, and the potential impact it may have had on aid workers’ safety and their work, we reluctantly decided not to film the story. (Just days after our return, the World Bank cancelled its funding of the Padma Bridge project, citing government corruption, which explains the hyper-sensitivity over the story.)

I had never truly understood the value of “freedom of the press” – but I do now.

Other challenges, on a much smaller scale, included overcoming accessibility and cultural barriers. We had anticipated traffic delays, but travelling in Bangladesh is insane!  A 160-kilometre trip was a six-hour, heart-stopping, back-breaking journey.

However, none of these experiences ruined the trip. I have never met a nicer and more genuine population as the Bangladesh people.

Our work was also made a lot smoother due to significant contact with an Asia New Zealand Foundation young leader, Syed Faisal Hasan, and the World Vision Bangladesh national office.  Both helped answer multiple questions before we arrived.

By Joy Reid

Related links

Joy Reid’s blog posts about her time in Bangladesh:

Last updated: 5 Jun 2013