Morshed Ali Khan – Special Correspondent, The Daily Star, Dhaka, Bangladesh

Interview by the NGO Shipbreaking Platform

Why is the shipbreaking issue so important for Bangladeshi journalists?

Ship breaking is a massive operation actually hidden behind all sorts of shady deals. We did not know much about it until large number of poor workers started to die and sustain horrendous injuries. The actual operation, beginning from procuring the ship in the international market, beaching, dismantling and recycling, is simply too hazardous. In a country like Bangladesh where governance is a far cry, safety for workers and environment issues are negotiated under the tables. Industrialists claim that ship breaking industry provides direct or indirect employments for up to a quarter of a million people and meets 20 percent of the country’s need for steel. Rights of workers and environmental issue are the two most important factors we journalists are concerned about. With the world facing serious climatic changes, recycling is not a bad idea at all but we have to make sure that it is done rightly with due respect to man and environment.

Do you get a lot of reaction from your readers on these articles?

We journalists face two kinds of problems here. Firstly, lack of awareness among people about human and environmental rights and secondly indifference of the authorities concerned or in other word : corruption. We nonetheless receive lot of reaction and the good news is it is on the rise.

How difficult is it to find information, or get it confirmed?

Information is very, very tough to receive in the ship breaking sector despite the existence of a new law called Right to Information. About five different government offices deal with ship breaking in Chittagong and lack of coordination among those makes things even worse for us. We mainly depend on tip offs from local and international sources and then work on the lead with the authorities. Information on accidents inside the ship breaking yards used to be suppressed but now with NGOs and rights groups working in the ship breaking slums, the news is instantly leaked out to the press. To get the information confirmed is also a tough call. Strong ties between the authorities and the defiant ship breakers often make the authorities protect their interests by suppressing facts. We have to make sure we, in no way, divert from the ethics of journalism.

Can you easily do your job as a journalist when you cover shipbreaking? Is it different from covering other issues?

I have covered civil wars in Africa and numerous other crisis during my 25 years as a journalist. But never ever did I feel as insecure as in the Sitakundu ship breaking yards. The area has virtually remained off-limits for us so I had to go there undercover. The owners keep their own hoodlums who could be ruthless.  But things are changing now. There is one yard called the ‘model yard’ meeting almost all compliance under the new guidelines imposed by the high court. Anyone willing to visit a yard, is given permission to see the model yard only.
What do you think about the coverage from the foreign media on shipbreaking? What should be improved or changed?
Foreign media, has, I would say, conveniently shied away from the pressing issues related to ship breaking in Bangladesh. After all we are doing a great favor to the developed world by taking their mammoth wastes and turning them into valuable commodities. The foreign media could play a vital role in bringing some discipline to the ship breaking sector in Bangladesh. Workers rights, safety and work conditions could be focused and environmental degradation caused by the operations must be regularly reported.