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BANGLADESH: Matiur Rahman gets Magsaysay award

Editor of Prothom Alo receives Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize for bringing about greater awareness of the rise in acid throwing incidents in Bangladesh

The Daily Star
Tuesday, August 2, 2005

Editor of the daily Prothom Alo Matiur Rahman has won this year's Ramon Magsaysay award along with five others from South and Southeast Asian countries.

Matiur has been honoured with the prestigious award for his crusade against acid-throwing on Bangladesh women, the award foundation said yesterday.

The other recipients of the award, regarded as Asia's equivalent of the Nobel Prize, are Thai Senator Jon Ungphakorn, Indonesian anti-graft campaigner Teten Masduki, Indian physician V Shanta, South Korean civil society leader Yoon Hye-Ran and Laotian community leader Sombath Somphone.

Matiur won the award for journalism, literature and creative communication arts. The foundation praised "his wielding the power of the press to crusade against acid throwing to stir Bangladeshis to help its many victims," says the news agency.

About 300 people, most of them young women, are permanently disfigured every year in Bangladesh in attacks often motivated by spite after victims deny the attackers sex, marriage or suitable dowries.

Our Staff Correspondent adds: Matiur Rahman said he will donate the prize money ($50,000) for the victims of acid throwing, oppressed journalists and for anti-drug campaign in Bangladesh.

The Prothom Alo gave a wide coverage of the alarming rise of acid throwing incidents in Bangladesh. But in 2000 a heartrending case involving a 15-year-old girl riveted Matiur's attention. He determined to harness the resources of his newspaper to fight the scourge, says the foundation in a citation for him.

In prominent daily appeals, Matiur 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.

Matiur 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 land, and shops for others.

By June 2005, about Tk 8.2 million had been coursed to over 100 victims.

At the same time, the Prothom Alo pressured the government into strengthening laws against acid attacks and reckless sale of dangerous chemicals.

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.

Matiur has been described in the citation as "the navigator of positive social and cultural change" in Bangladesh.

He used his authority as the editor of the 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, says the citation.

Born in 1946, Matiur founded the Prothom Alo in 1998 and established the daily's credibility by exposing the missteps of both the government and the opposition and by aggressively covering corruption, terrorism, and human rights violations.

Matiur Rahman yesterday declared to donate one-third of his prize money to the fund for acid victims, one-third to the anti-drug movement and the rest to the oppressed journalists of the country. The award money is $50,000, equivalent to about Tk 32 lakh.

The staff members of the daily Prothom Alo congratulated their editor yesterday afternoon after the Magsaysay award was published on the internet. The editor met all the staff at his office and celebrated the award together.

"This award belongs to all of Prothom Alo," a delighted Matiur said while meeting his colleagues. He said the achievement is the result of the concerted efforts of all.

The award is recognition for all the Prothom Alo-sponsored programmes -- acid victims' aid fund, anti-drug campaign and AIDS movement, Mathematics Olympiad and language competition, Matiur continued.

"I am happy," said Matiur, sharing his delight with his colleagues. He added: "The award has bestowed more responsibilities on us."

The award is international recognition for brave journalism in Bangladesh, said Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star and publisher of the Prothom Alo.

It is a befitting reply to a recent comment of the finance minister who branded journalists as the country's main enemy, he added.

"We all are happy with the award given to a dynamic editor like Matiur Rahman," The Daily Star editor said.

Maleka Begum, an eminent women rights leader and wife of Matiur Rahman, said their family, especially Matiur's mother, is delighted with the award.

The Magsaysay award was introduced in 1957 and named after the Philippines' most popular president. Each award-winner is to receive a cash prize and will be asked to take part in a series of public lectures at the foundation offices in Manila.

Thai Senator Jon Ungphakorn was cited by the Philippines-based foundation for "his impassioned insistence as a senator that Thailand respect the rights and attend humanely to the needs of its least advantaged citizens."

Teten Masduki of Indonesia Corruption Watch won the award for public service for "challenging Indonesians to expose corruption and claim their right to clean the government."

Indian physician V Shanta, a second public service awardee, was honoured for "her untiring leadership of the Cancer Institute as a centre of excellence and compassion for the study and treatment of cancer in India."

South Korea's Yoon Hye-Ran, founder of the Citizens Opening the World for Welfare, won the award for emergent leadership. She was cited for "her catalytic role in enabling (her hometown) Chenoan's civil society to exercise its social responsibilities dynamically and democratically."

Laotian Sombath Somphone won the award for community leadership. The founder and executive director of the Participatory Development Training Centre was recognised for "his hopeful efforts to promote sustainable development in Laos by training and motivating its young people to become a generation of leaders."