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Framing of Bangladesh
in U.S. Media:
A postcolonial analysis
Department of Communication, University of South Florida,
Tampa, FL, USA
This study examines how Bangladesh, a Muslim-dominated country located in the global
South, has been portrayed in leading U.S. media over the past five years (2011–2015).
Investigating the process of media framing from a postcolonial theoretical perspective,
this study analyses 240 stories (reports, editorials, opinion pieces, etc.) in two U.S.
media outlets (The New York Times and The Washington Post) to understand the framing
of Bangladesh. The findings indicate that negative attributes frequently come to con-
struct the image of Bangladesh and describe the moral state of the nation. Violent Islamic
extremists,disastrous country, and human rights violations emerge as the dominant frames
to describe Bangladesh. Drawing on postcolonial theory, the article argues that
these stereotypical frames of Bangladesh are important to sustaining the binary
opposition of the West with its other. I conclude by calling for a democratic media
Bangladesh, global media ethics, global South, media framing, postcolonialism
News is an important discursive site for media and communication researchers to
understand what framing is and how it works (D’Angelo and Kuypers, 2010;
Md. Khorshed Alam, Department of Communication, University of South Florida, CIS 3015, 4202 E. Flower
Avenue, Tampa, FL 33620, USA.
!The Author(s) 2020
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Sosale and Rosas-Moreno, 2016). Studies (Abbas, 2001; Ali et al., 2013; Fahmy,
2010; Ha and Shin, 2016) suggest that U.S. media coverage of other nations,
especially developing countries, tends to emphasize violence, political unrest,
extremism, disaster, famine, and confrontation. The U.S. media predominantly
depicts Third World countries negatively by using government sources of infor-
mation while covering their issues (Ali et al., 2013). As a result, readers/audiences
get only episodic information and a partial view of developing countries. The
narratives produced using government sources typically stereotype Third World
nations as irrational, violent, cruel, and barbaric places (Abbas, 2001). In addition,
news stories about these nations tend to be brief and overly simplistic. The U.S.
news media’s formulaic, simplistic, and stereotypical depictions of the Third World
and focus on disasters and crises in these areas construct Third World countries as
unstable and incapable of rational self-governance.
Bangladesh is a majority Muslim country in South Asia. It is the world’s most
densely populated nation and the eighth most populous country overall, with 168
million residents (Lewis, 2011). Numerous studies have explored media depictions
of Third World countries (e.g., Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mongolia) and
regions (e.g., South-Asia, Asia, Africa, Arab), as well as news portrayals of reli-
gions (e.g., Islam), conﬂicts, (e.g., the war in Darfur), movements (e.g., Arab
Spring), and political leaders (e.g., Saddam Hussein) in the Third World.
However, little research has focused on the relationship between the state and its
media policy. Furthermore, few studies on these topics have evaluated U.S. media
from a theoretical perspective.
Although few academic researchers have problematized media portrayals of
above-mentioned countries/regions, particularly Arab countries in U.S. media,
no research has been conducted on the construction of Bangladesh in U.S.
media. Studies on Bangladesh are particularly relevant, given that a recent article
(Ahmed and Matthes, 2017) suggests that further research is needed on the media
portrayal of Islam in geographic regions outside of Arab countries. Bangladesh
may have been excluded from prior scholarship because Western media give less
focus to ‘moderate Muslim’ countries like Bangladesh, instead concentrating cov-
erage on Muslim countries experiencing conﬂict (Ahmed and Matthes, 2017), as
these countries are considered threats to national security and directly connected to
U.S. geo-political and economic interests. Therefore, by focusing on U.S. media
depictions of Bangladesh, this study addresses an important gap in literature on
Western news coverage of Muslim majority nations.
Studies (Reta, 2000; Saleem, 2007; Yang, 2003) indicate that U.S. media frames
images of foreign countries positively when this framing beneﬁts U.S. economic
and political interests. Thus, this research has an aim to investigate how
Bangladesh, a moderate Muslim country where there is not signiﬁcant U.S. inter-
est, is framed and represented by two of the leading U.S. national news outlets: The
New York Times and The Washington Post. To do this, 240 stories which include
reports, editorials, commentaries, and opinion pieces were drawn upon. I chose to
include editorials and opinion pieces because these stories are not governed by the
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principles of news ‘objectivity,’ meaning that authors’ ideological perspectives are
manifested more explicitly (Ha, 2017).
Below, I brieﬂy sketch an outline of the relationship between the United States
and Bangladesh. Next, I review literature on communication research on news
media coverage, postcolonial scholarship as a theoretical framework, and media
framing as a research method.
Bangladesh and the United States: A relational sketch
Bangladesh is viewed as a moderate Muslim country by the U.S. government (U.S.
Department of State, 2018) and the nations have a long-standing good relationship
regarding the issues of regional and global security, climate change, and counter-
terrorism. The key U.S. interests in Bangladesh involves, as described by the U.S.
Department of State (2018), economic reform, market opening, counterterrorism,
political stability, democratization, good governance, environmental issues, and
human rights development. Bangladesh and the United States are also important
economic partners, as the United States is the largest export market for
Bangladesh (Lewis, 2011). Bangladesh is also one of the largest sources of foreign
direct investment for the United States. The International Trade Administration
(2017) organized by the U.S. Department of Commerce, identiﬁes Bangladesh as
an excellent potential market for U.S. exports. The largest U.S. investment in
Bangladesh is the operations of Chevron which produces 50% of Bangladesh’s
natural gas (Naser, 2016). Bangladesh is the second largest apparel exporter in the
world after China and ranked third in the list of RMG exporters to the USA (Textile
Today, August 7, 2018). Thus, Bangladesh provides an excellent case study of U.S.
news coverage of a Muslim majority nation with which the United States is an
economic partner and political ally.
Relevant literature: A review
This section illustrates how geo-political and economic interests of the U.S. moti-
vate media portrayal of developing countries, particularly in Asia and South Asia.
Studies (Hafez, 2000; Reta, 2000; Yang, 2003) show that U.S. media generally
highlight national interests and policies while framing other countries.
Protection and projection of national interests by U.S. media are more pronounced
when it comes to competing powers such as China and Russia. Bukhory’s (1989)
analysis shows that the American press covered positively only those Asian coun-
tries where it has political, economic, and military interests, such as China, Korea,
Philippines, Japan, and Pakistan. Corporate inﬂuence on media organizations, as
Saleem (2007) argues, compels journalists to frame a friendly image of countries
when American economic interests are involved.
In contrast, guided by these strategies of media framing, the media coverage of
less afﬂuent South Asian countries by the U.S. media has been marginal
(Poornananda, 1998) and negative (Bukhory, 1989). Poornananda’s (1998)
analysis demonstrated that two leading newspapers, The Washington Post and The
Los Angeles Times, provide very little coverage to South Asia. When they do
publish stories on these areas, articles generally focus on crimes, disasters, con-
ﬂicts, and the failures of governments and other institutions, while areas including
science, arts, and culture were signiﬁcantly ignored (Bukhory, 1989; Stevenson and
Shaw, 1984). When the relationship between the United States and the country in
question is tense, the U.S. media frames the country negatively. Other factors are
also considered important for selecting international news by the USA media, such as
if the country is considered a threat to the United States and world peace, the antic-
ipated reader interest, the timeliness, United States involvement, and loss of lives and
property (Chang and Lee, 1992, cited by Bazaa, 2009).
A historical analysis of media framing strategies in U.S. media related to South
Asian countries show that a political relationship with other countries has been
inﬂuential to media portrayal of Third World countries for hundreds of years
(Shabir et al. (2011)). Shabir et al. (2011) found that two leading American news
magazines, Newsweek and Time, represent Afghanistan as the home of the Taliban
and extremism, a penitentiary for women, a narcotics den, a center for Islamization,
and a haven for Al-Qaida and Osama Bin Laden. The proportion of negative cov-
erage (57.08%) was greater than the positive coverage (6.08%) for Afghanistan.
These two magazines also depict Pakistan as a country of political unrest and a
base of religious terrorism (Ali et al., 2013). These examples illustrate how Islam gets
constructed in Western media. Western media is not only critical towards Islam but
also promotes stereotypes about the Muslim world and Islamic values (Bukhory,
1989; Poole, 2000). Bukhory (1989) suggests that depictions of Islam as dogmatic
and bigoted serve to construct Christianity as a symbol of tolerance. Said argues ‘In
the west, the Arabs are frequently presented as a menace, a terrorist, a shadowy
ﬁgure that operates outside of the accepted value system and is, therefore, to be
feared and mistrusted’ (1981: 15). This resonates with Duranni’s, (2005) argument of
‘Islamic fundamentalism as the 9/11 tragedy and the consequential events exacer-
bated the situation beyond control, causing a vitriolic backlash of the hostility from
Western media towards all that is Islam’ (p. 21). The following section discusses the
theoretical underpinnings of this study before moving on to an examination of
media framing techniques.
Postcolonial studies: Theoretical underpinnings
Postcolonial scholarship focuses on how the West and the ‘Other’ are constitutive of
one another and intervenes in communication discipline by problematizing the notion
of communication that is ‘rooted in the West and is largely inﬂuenced by modernist
intellectual and institutional structures’ (Shome and Hegde, 2002: 261). The postco-
lonial approach to global media ethics urges to take into account the historical con-
text and local epistemologies of non-Western terrains. This project particularly
employs Said’s (1979) concept of Orientalism and cultural representation as presented
by Stuart Hall (1997) to problematize the Western framing of global South. For Said,
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Orientalism can be viewed as ‘a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and
having authority over the Orient’ (1979: 3). The reality created by media results in
lasting images and stereotypes about groups, religions, and peoples (Markham and
Maslog, 1971). Framing of media affects how the public learns, understands, or
thinks about an issue (Jamieson and Waldman, 2003). Said (1981) argues that the
production of knowledge that fosters stereotypes is very much ingrained in the
modern Western imagination and their psyche. Stereotyping becomes a key instru-
ment for maintaining cultural dynamics between the West and outsiders.
For Hall (1997), binary oppositions are crucial for maintaining a difference and
oppositional relationship. The binary of civilized vs. uncivilized, for example, plays
a fundamental role in producing cultural meaning. Throughout the history of the
West, Hall says, negative depiction of non-West has played a signiﬁcant role in
colonial projects. These representations, constructed by Western media, form a
bridge between the ‘imperial eye’ and the domestic imagination, greatly inﬂuencing
how Western audiences understand outsiders. The relationship between knowledge
and power is fundamental to the process of cultural representation. Binary logics
of knowledge production spawn a particular way of knowing and understanding,
which is based on Western epistemology (Loomba, 2005). In consequence, as
Young (2003) articulates, postcolonial scholarship works to challenge the univer-
salization process by questioning the politics of dominant knowledge production
as an outcome of uneven power relations between nations that are rooted in the
colonial past and postcolonial present.
Framing analysis: A means of postcolonial investigation
Postcolonial theory and frame analysis can inform one another in several ways.
‘Framing’ refers to the way that information is organized and presented in media
and plays a signiﬁcant role in the creation and distribution of ideologies. To
Entman, framing ‘essentially involves selection and salience. The word salience
means making a piece of information more noticeable, meaningful, or memorable
to audiences’ (1993: 51). Framing analysis provides a theoretical basis for examining
this process. It encompasses a set of concepts and theoretical perspectives on how
people, perceive, construct, and communicate about reality. Scholars (Coleman,
2010; Dimitrova and Lee, 2009; Entman 1993, 2007; Gamson, 1989; Grancea,
2014; Matthes, 2009; Messaris and Abraham, 2001; Rodriguez and Dimitrova,
2011; Scheufele, 1999) have used framing as a means to interpret the media coverage
in myriad ways. Media frames may affect what audiences think about an event and
even how they think (Godefroidt et al., 2016).
From a postcolonial position, theory itself is not neutral but rather ideologically
charged and ‘always already positioned within networks of power.’ Therefore, post-
colonial approaches aim to critique ‘existing forms of knowledge and the circum-
stances of its production’ (Rao and Wasserman, 2007: 36). Postcolonial approaches,
then, attempt to unfold the re/production of knowledge regulated by (neo)colonial
West and challenge the dominant discourse of global media ethics using techniques
like framing analysis, but also reﬂecting on the values and ideologies embedded
within this method.
Postcolonial framing analysis interrogates dominant ethical frameworks in
media and advances new approaches to global media ethics (e.g., Rao, 2010;
Rao and Wasserman, 2007; Wasserman, 2006, 2010). The dominant ethical frame-
work of media/journalism is identiﬁed as ‘North Atlantic’ and rooted in liberalism.
Here, Western media leaders set universal principles for journalism professionals
which are imposed on journalists in the non-Western world (Massey and Chang,
2002; Rao, 2010). Rather than relying on a set of universal principles, postcolonial
ethics ‘speak to Western paradigms in the voice of otherness’ (McEwan, 2003, p.
347). Thus, postcolonial scholarship challenges dominant Western production of
knowledge and critiques ‘prevailing normative media frameworks and the tradi-
tions from which they derive’ (Wasserman, 2010: 81).
To take an example, Wasserman (2010) argues that by applying the Western
ethical framework uncritically to the African context, Western media often impose
negative attributes onto African people. Quoting Ndangam, he notes, ‘In many
African countries, the low salaries and insecure conditions of employment of jour-
nalists have resulted in journalists accepting payment from news sources in return
for coverage’ (Wasserman, 2006: 82). Therefore, Wasserman suggests that instead of
framing that practice as ‘bribery’, Western media need to understand the context
behind journalists’ choices. Consequently, postcolonial scholarship becomes impor-
tant that can ‘be used as a framework within which local practices, values, and
concepts from outside the West may be explored (Rao and Wasserman, 2007: 34).
In addition to these theoretical contributions to framing analysis, postcolonial
theory brings to fore how a distorted reality regarding the global South is produced,
reproduced, and distributed through Western media framing. In particular, postco-
lonial informed framing analysis demonstrates the ways in which the global South is
depicted as inferior, backward, violent, and so on. The framing of international
events is especially important since the audience has no ﬁrsthand knowledge of
those events. Western media often fail to provide an appropriate context of a
non-Western issue and thus non-West is framed and presented from ‘out-of-context’
to Western audiences. As Ward and Wasserman explain, ‘Unless reported within its
proper context, North American readers may fail to understand the causes of vio-
lence in the Middle East, or ethnic conﬂict in Africa. Jingoistic reports can portray
the inhabitants of other regions of the world as a threat’ (2010: 1). In sum, framing
analysis is an effective tool in the area of postcolonial investigation for (1) unfolding
the misrepresentation of postcolonial subjects and (2) considering the local construc-
tion of meaning for the formulation of a global media ethics.
Integrating postcolonial theory and media framing analysis, this research analyzes
media coverage of Bangladesh in two leading U.S. newspapers, The New York
Times (NYT) and The Washington Post (WP). The research question that guides
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this study is: How do NYT and WP discursively frame Bangladesh? The Lexis
Nexis Academic database was used to select reports on Bangladesh. First, the
search words ‘Bangladesh’ in ‘headline and lead paragraph’ sections were used
to retrieve reports from the last ﬁve years (2011–2015). The search provided 240
stories (reports, editorials, commentaries) in total—179 from NYT and 61 from
WP. The reason for selecting this time frame (2011–2015) is that, as mentioned
earlier, the U.S. media gives more attention to developing countries when crisis
and conﬂicts take place there. During those years, Bangladesh drew global atten-
tion, particularly in the United States, for a number of reasons, including religious
extremism, political unrest, several national movements (e.g., Shahabagh, Shapla),
the killing of bloggers, a war crimes tribunal, extra judicial killings, and disasters in
the garment sector. For instance, the Rana Plaza collapse on 24 April 2013 was a
structural failure of an eight-story garment building in Bangladesh that became the
deadliest garment industry disaster in world history. Causing 1,130 deaths and
2,500 injuries, this disaster drew global media attention.
This project examines Orientalist tropes within the reports of NYT and WP
regarding Bangladesh. Reports from NYT and WP retrieved through my search
process were grouped and regrouped in terms of categories and emerging frames
with the goal of understanding the discursive constructions of Bangladesh. I ulti-
mately identiﬁed three broad frames which are elaborated in the next section: (a)
violent Islamic extremists; (b) disastrous country; and (c) human rights violations.
These represent how the analyses evolved from identiﬁcation of Orientalist meta-
phors and tropes to an engagement with the broader global context within which
these textual representations were made.
Violent Islamic extremists. Bangladesh is a Muslim majority country. As of 2011,
Muslims constitute 90% of the total population. A study of the Pew Research
Center (2011) indicates that it is the fourth most populous Muslim country in the
world. The country’s dominant Muslim identity and the associated stereotypes
emerge as dominant frames in the selected U.S. newspapers. In line with stereo-
types of Muslim identity, Bangladesh was frequently bracketed with ‘Islamist fun-
damentalist’ (NYT, 7 May 2013), ‘a rare Muslim democracy’ (NYT, 11 January
2014), ‘Talibanization’, ‘orthodox Muslims’, and ‘emergence of Islamic national-
ism’ (WP, 27 April 2013). Apart from ethnic strife and religious fundamentalism,
challenges of contemporary Bangladesh are reported in WP as ‘...extreme poverty,
overcrowding, and ﬂooding that frequently renders large numbers of people home-
less. The country’s Muslim majority is the target of Islamist radicalization’
(6 February 2011). Referring to an analyst, WP reports (22 March 2014), ‘although
Bangladesh’s legal code is secular, more citizens are embracing a conservative
version of Islam, with some pushing for Sharia law’. The Muslim identity of
Bangladesh becomes problematic due to religious violence and unrest in the
Bangladeshi. For example, NYT categorized a political activity of some Islamic
parties as a ‘deadly crackdown on Islamist protesters’ (13 August 2013). These
reports in NYT and WP frame ‘Muslim identity’ as a primary source of the vio-
lence, fundamentalism and terrorism in Bangladesh. This echoes with previous
research which has shown that Muslims are often framed as ‘militants and terro-
rists’ (Ewart, 2012; Powell, 2011) and brutal, uncivilized, heartless, religious
fanatics (Shaheen, 2009). By selecting and highlighting limited information regard-
ing Bangladesh (e.g., overpopulation, crowding, Islamic identity, ﬂoods, poverty)
in a particular manner, what Entman (1993) says, as ‘selection and salience’, while
erasing other characteristics about the nation (e.g., second highest garment export-
er country, second most gender equal country in Asia, eighth largest remittance
receiving country), consciously or unconsciously, NYT and WP perpetuate frames
where negative, stereotypical pieces of information about Bangladesh become
‘more noticeable, meaningful, or memorable to audiences’.
As an example, the murder of four online bloggers-activists in 2013–2015 as a
violation of freedom of speech received widespread U.S. media coverage, even
though attacks on foreigners are rare in Bangladesh. A reporter of NYT wrote:
‘The killings of the bloggers have hit a nerve in Bangladesh, with its deepening
divide between secular thinkers and conservative Muslims over the question of
whether Bangladesh should be a secular or an Islamic nation’ (13 March 2015).
Although NYT mentions ‘secular thinkers and conservative Muslims,’ it is implicit
that Islam is an obstacle of free thinking, and the bloggers are secular thus pro-
gressive. A report of WP (27 February 2015) wrote that threats or fatwas have
become coldblooded killings on crowded streets. Some described the murders as
acts of ‘copycat violence’, imitating similar attacks by fanatics elsewhere and part
of the globalization of Islam. Continuous focus on such violence constructs a
fearful situation in Bangladesh, characterized by extremist religious fundamental-
ism and a lack of security and internal disciplinary control.
There is also a tendency of the U.S. newspapers to connect violence, Islam, and
Pakistan. For instance, one NYT report read, ‘In 2013, Ahmed Rajib Haider, an
atheist blogger, was killed by machete-wielding Islamic radicals. In both of these
cases, the attackers demanded that the government pass a law against blasphemy,
similar to the one that exists in Pakistan’ (13 March 2015). The same narrative is
shown on WP’s report headlined ‘Secular vs. Islamist State’ which says: ‘That split
has existed since the secularist side won independence for Bangladesh in a war with
Pakistan in 1971 ... led to worries that Bangladesh could wind up like Pakistan,
where Islamist extremists threaten the state’ (23 March 2014). Here the war in 1971
between West Pakistan and East Pakistan (currently Bangladesh) is framed as a
war that took place between secularism and Islam, which is incorrect. In truth, it
was East Pakistan that fought against West Pakistan to achieve politico-economic
Additionally, by saying that Bangladesh is becoming religiously conservative
from its previous moderate form of Islam, WP reported, ‘More mosques
have opened, as have shops selling head-to-toe black abaya robes for
women’ (22 March 2014). Quoting Salil Tripathi, a WP report said, ‘Bangladesh
8the International Communication Gazette 0(0)
is becoming a land where assassins feel emboldened’ (27 February 2015). One NYT
article reported that stores increasingly sell black hijabs with signs on the front
windows reading ‘For True Muslim Women,’ indicating a shift in the country’s
tolerance toward secular nationalists. While news stories cover an issue with some
implicit assumptions, editorials and opinion pieces reinforce those by supplement-
ing additional information and arguments. For example, syncing with the news
report, NYT published an opinion piece of Linika Pelham headlined ‘End of a
Secular Bangladesh?’ which says: ‘Bangladesh has changed ....... Are there no
women in Dhaka? Looking around, I realized that most women were covered in
black burqas or hijabs – a style that I had seen in such large numbers only in the
Middle East’ (5 March 2015). This opinion piece assumes that burqa/hijab (veil) is
a symbol of sexist oppression in Middle Eastern countries and contradicts the
image of Bangladesh as a secular state. This echoes Ahmed and Matthes (2017)
argument that Islam is portrayed by the dominant media as a religion of irrational
violence that subordinates women. This stereotypical assumption reinforces a
notion of Western/White feminism which suggests that Third World Muslim
women are oppressed due to their religion, a position which is contested by
Mohanty (1984). Additionally, Berger (1998) argues that wearing a veil is now
considered as an act as a power statement of pride in religion, femininity, and
sexual identity and can be viewed as a symbol of Islamic freedom.
In sum, the portrayal of ‘Muslim identity’ becomes synonymous with ‘cultural
backwardness’ in most NYT and WP reports. Bangladesh produces the second
most textile goods in the world. As female labor is cheaper than male, international
giant textile companies (e.g., Wal-Mart, Target, JCPenney) import garment prod-
ucts from Bangladesh made by women. In the last few decades, a large number of
women (around 80% of total laborers according to a report of NYT published on
14 May 2013) became involved with this sector. This has created a socio-economic
transformation in Bangladeshi society. WP describes this societal advancement as
‘a dramatic cultural shift in the predominantly Muslim nation’ (17 May 2013). The
report implies that women are typically conﬁned to doing only household work in
the Muslim culture. Because of the advent of the garment industry, women secured
an opportunity to step outside of the home, promoting ‘a dramatic cultural shift’.
Violence comes across as a dominant frame in both newspapers’ representation
of Bangladesh as a ‘country with a tradition of stormy protest’ (NYT, 11 January
2014). Reports on acid attacks, domestic violence, political turmoil, social move-
ments, religious extremism, resistance and murder, among other issues, can be
identiﬁed as persistent frames used in these newspapers. These patterns in news
reporting not only set up violence as a dominant frame but also construct
Bangladesh in a particular negative manner. Romantic rejection, gang rivalry,
dowry solicitation, and misogyny are some of the motives cited for acid attacks
on women. Domestic violence reports point out the contradictions in the
Bangladesh Constitution, as it guarantees the equal rights to citizens while allow-
ing women’s lives to be restricted by Shariah (Islamic) law. One NYT opinion piece
(5 March 2014) argues that the quarrel between ‘women’s formal rights in the
public sphere and their deprivation of rights in the private one is not just an issue
of assets, property and child custody; it also has a strong bearing on women’s
security within the home’. While these critiques are partially applicable, it is impor-
tant to acknowledge that these acts of violence are a global phenomenon. It is also
important to emphasize that women have been at the helm of Bangladesh’s polit-
ical tradition for decades. As of 2019, Bangladesh has been led by female prime
ministers for 29 years; the nation provides a unique example of women’s empow-
erment. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index 2018 reports that
Bangladesh is the second most gender equal country in Asia. Yet, American news-
papers single out Bangladesh for violence on women by framing it as an obstacle to
its social progress. The following section focuses on how a ‘disastrous country’
frame becomes a prominent frame for Bangladesh in the NYT and WP
Disastrous country. Bangladesh has generated global journalistic attention because it
is considered one of the most vulnerable countries to global warming. It is depicted
as a ‘disastrous country’ in the U.S. press in numerous ways. Reports on climate
change, global warming, famine, ﬂood and mass migration, garment collapse, and
ﬁre bring Bangladesh to the forefront of Western media. While introducing
Dr Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel laureate from Bangladesh and the founder of
Grameen Bank, WP wrote, ‘Dr. Yunus became a folk hero to Bangladeshis,
who changes the face of a nation better known for cyclones, ﬂoods, and famines’
(15 January 2011). In another report, WP wrote: ‘Once known for sweatshops and
cyclones, Bangladesh has emerged in recent years as a fragile democracy with an
expanding economy’ (22 March 2014). Such media statements highlight a select
few attributes and essentialize a whole nation in terms of those few categories.
Then, there are reports on the Pentagon having limited capabilities ‘to provide
humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, airlifts, maritime intelligence, and port
reconstruction’ (WP, 6 February 2011), further reinforcing Bangladesh as a coun-
try in need of constant support.
‘Poverty’ and ‘over population’ are two other categories which are repeatedly
highlighted in the U.S. media. For instance, one report said, ‘Bangladesh is beset
by extreme poverty, overcrowding’ (WP, 6 February 2011). Another report from
the same newspaper mentioned, ‘Inexpensive labor in population-dense
Bangladesh has encouraged Western companies’ (2 May 2013). A report from
NYT presented Bangladesh as one ‘of the world’s poorest countries’ and ‘an
already poor country’ where capital is ‘congested’ and ‘overcrowded’ (28 July
2013). Due to the extreme poverty, as WP reported, ‘many Bangladeshis already
try to ﬂee to India, either to escape the periodic ﬂoods or to seek jobs. The deluge
of people is so great that the Indian government has built a border fence and plans
to electrify it’ (WP, 6 February 2011). This article does not consider any of the
many other reasons India may tighten its border, including religious tensions,
extremist activities, and security concerns. The WP article also ignores a recent
report that gives the opposite view: ‘Bangladesh becomes 4th largest remittance
10 the International Communication Gazette 0(0)
source for India, remitting about $10.00 billion in 2017’ (Daily Industry, 2 July
2018) while at least one million Indian people are now working in Bangladesh,
most of them being illegal migrants and refugees.
The frame of political instability has been quite salient as well. After indepen-
dence in 1971, Bangladesh has faced political stalemates at different times. Since
1990, it has been under a democratic political system with some internal limitations
and nominal disruptions. However, a report of WP presents Bangladesh as a
country of political instability that includes ‘more than 22 coups and counter-
coups’. These labels exaggerate the internal problems, while claims of internal
unrest (of Bangladesh) spilling into neighboring India (WP, 6 February 2011)
misleadingly suggests that Bangladesh poses a threat to nations beyond its borders.
Concerns about political unrest are linked with questions regarding Bangladesh’s
economic stability. Media reports estimate possible economic losses and speculate
about which sectors are likely to be affected by political upheavals.
For the past 30 years, control of Bangladesh has been largely in the hands of
two women (Sheikh Hasina and Begum Khaleda Zia). U.S. media frequently
portrayed them as stubborn, autocratic ‘Battling Begums’ of a ‘shaky democratic
country’ who rarely speak to each other. An opinion piece from NYT described
their animosity—‘The grievances are, in a way, an outgrowth of dynastic politics.
Both women were thrust into politics by violence’ (11 January 2014). It continues,
‘In 2007, Bangladeshi generals grew so frustrated by the friction that they jailed
both women on corruption charges, a plan that was known as the “minus two
solution”’. Here NYT criticizes two top women political leaders and justiﬁes the
fake corruption allegations against them. These allegations were levied by an
unelected apolitical government backed by the army and were later disproven.
NYT’s framing of this issue has two main effects: (1) it encourages apolitical
systems instead of democratic political processes and (2) it implies that because
the top two leaders are female thus battling which is a feminine act that also
reinforces a patriarchal stereotype. Although some reports occasionally write
about the political tradition epitomized by the ‘dueling matriarchs’, the dominant
presence of women in power is never juxtaposed with the discourse surrounding
the deprivation of women’s rights. The latter is selectively highlighted while
completely erasing and undermining women’s accomplishments.
News reports appeared in NYT and WP on general strikes ‘paralyzing’
Bangladesh, deaths in violent clashes between rival political factions, the arrest
of opposition leaders and human rights activists, and possibilities of sanctions
from the international community represent Bangladesh in terms of conﬂict and
crisis. A positive representation will occasionally appear in the U.S. media. For
instance, while reporting on what is perhaps Bangladesh’s worst political violence
which claimed 50 lives in December 2013, WP wrote that the event ‘tarnished the
image of a country that, while still poor, has made remarkable gains in life expec-
tancy, literacy and gender equality’ (WP, 22 March 2014). It can be noted that the
positive aspects appear only ﬂeetingly, never make headlines, and contradict the
dominant media representation. Instead, what stands out are statements such as
this: ‘the wave of violence engulﬁng the country risks spinning out of control’
(NYT, 12 February 2015).
The highest number of reports about Bangladesh from NYT and WP focused
on disasters, ﬁres, collapses, etc. in Bangladesh’s garment industry. A garment
factory collapse in Bangladesh in early 2013, which caused more than 1,500
deaths, received signiﬁcant attention and coverage from NYT. The newspaper
described the accident as ‘deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry’
and said the collapsed building was ‘constructed with substandard materials and in
blatant disregard for building codes’ (23 May 2013). Reports from NYT focused
global attention on ‘unsafe conditions in the garment industry in Bangladesh’ (23
May 2013). Referencing The Economist,NYT argued, ‘the disaster in Dhaka
makes it hard for any company to claim credibly that it can be sure that its
products are “ethically sourced”’. Taking no responsibilities to improve working
conditions, some large companies planned to move their factories and scapegoated
the Bangladeshi government. As NYT reported, ‘The Bangladeshi government has
been reluctant because that would drive up the cost of products and encourage
Western companies to move to other countries with cheap labor’ (5 May 2013).
This line of thinking ignores the idea that multinational companies proﬁt
by exploiting Third World labor and that corporations can do much more to
reduce the dangers of the work places where products are made. I now turn
to an examination of how the U.S. media engages with issues of human rights
Human rights violations. It is evident from the number of reports that human rights
violations in Bangladesh are an important topic that is frequently discussed in U.S.
media. Many articles use terms like ‘dark spots’ to describe Bangladesh’s human
rights record: ‘The recent arrest of Bangladeshi human rights activist is yet another
dark spot in the continuing struggle over the identity of Bangladesh’ (NYT,13
August 2013). This framing implies that Bangladesh is associated with a number of
other dark spots where human rights are concerned. This report also talks about
attacks on journalists and activists which endanger Bangladesh’s struggling
democracy. An editorial in NYT reads, ‘Journalism is a dangerous profession in
Bangladesh. Local journalists have been physically attacked, and even killed, for
reports that the government or Islamist extremists found offensive’ (23 December
2014). This indicates that both the government and Islamist forces in Bangladesh
are enemies to freedom of speech. Identifying Bangladeshi culture as a ‘culture of
repression’, a report in NYT said, ‘Bangladesh’s treatment of minorities has fun-
damentally changed. The Chittagong Hill Tracts, which is home to a large indig-
enous population, remains heavily militarized, with outbreaks of violence on a
regular basis. There is a culture of repression in the legal system, too, that is
alarming’ (9 February 2015). An NYT piece on the Rapid Action Battalion
(RAB), an elite counterterrorism squad in Bangladesh, noted, ‘For years, domestic
and international rights organizations have documented abductions and
12 the International Communication Gazette 0(0)
extrajudicial killings and torture by Bangladeshi security forces, including the
Rapid Action Battalion’ (10 April 2015).
Child marriage is another phenomenon that violates human rights. Quoting
Human Rights Watch, WP reported, ‘the country has the fourth-highest rate of
child marriage in the world, with 29 percent of Bangladeshi girls married before
age 15 and 65 percent before age 18’ (28 August 2015). This is because marriage is
seen as a way to achieve respect and protection for women by reducing the risk of
being sexually active outside the house or being harassed while commuting,
according to the report. This logic presents the issue as a cultural problem, but
there is negligible critical discussion available. The Human Rights Watch report
also writes that Bangladesh has made signiﬁcant achievements in reducing mater-
nal mortality and poverty, developing gender parity in enrollment in primary and
secondary schools, and improving its record on women’s rights. However, these
improvements are lost in the WP article, and child marriage as a human rights
violation remains salient. Situating child marriage in the context of the other social
problems that the government has worked on not only provides comprehensive
reporting but also indicates that the government is not impervious to social issues.
All it says is that the government is struggling to tackle child marriage and has
raised some awareness. One NYT report (6 March 2014) did quote Amartya Sen, a
Nobel laureate and economics Professor of Harvard University, who praised
Bangladesh record on gender equality by stating that Bangladesh surpasses even
India’s record ‘in every aspect of the human development index’. While this com-
ment by a leading economist was mentioned, it did not make a headline in NYT.
Occasionally, there are soul-searching commentaries that are not written merely
to label a country in a particular manner but to raise critical questions. An opinion
piece of Tahmima Anam in NYT is one such article (2 September 2014). It starts
with a quote from Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others: ‘being a spectator
of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experi-
ence’. Anam then writes:
In Bangladesh, it appears that we are the spectators of – and collaborators in – our
own calamities. Every few months, we witness a major tragedy, knowing all the while
that once the dust has settled on the terrible thing that just happened, it is only a
matter of time before another one is splashed across the front pages of our
newspapers ...We have become a country that takes disaster in its stride ...At
some point, someone, or a collection of people, have made the decision that the
cost of upgrading, maintaining and regulating our transportation infrastructure is
higher than the cost of the lives that will be lost if things continue as they
are ...When we watch another person in pain, an image meant to provoke empathy,
we are also acknowledging that this person is not us. The greater the tragedy, the
more we feel ourselves separate from it, because we would never be on that ferry, or in
that garment factory when it collapsed, or on the side of that road when the car
struck. To paraphrase the aesthetician Elaine Scarry, in ‘The Body in Pain,’ the
larger their pain, the greater our power. The question remains: What do we do with
This article stood out from the many others that I analyzed, as the description
provided by Anam (2014) is imbued with empathy and an understanding that does
not naturalize or de-politicize human suffering. Rather Anam claims that the loss
of lives of marginalized members of society (the ferry riders and the garment
workers) is due to the negligence of the dominant system of power and situates
this problem on a global register.
In sum, some NYT and WP reports posed important questions on issues of
democracy in Bangladesh, but their overwhelming focus on negative portrayals
and their lack of critical engagement with these issues served to stereotype
Bangladesh in terms of a few negative attributes.
Drawing on the process of media framing from a postcolonial theoretical perspec-
tive, this study reveals that violent Islamic extremists,disastrous country, and
human rights violations emerge as the dominant frames to describe Bangladesh
in two American newspapers, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
A postcolonial reading of these stories through the lens of Orientalism offers
opportunities to understand how Orientalist discourses work to carry out a cul-
tural logic of the Western hegemony. The themes from the analysis demonstrate
that the framing of Bangladesh relies heavily on and perpetuates the ‘commonsen-
sical’ First World/Third World, civilized/backward, and modern/primitive binaries
by serving the interest of the United States, which ultimately creates a sense of
cultural superiority over the global South. Even after four decades of Said’s (1979)
inﬂuential idea of Orientalism, this analysis demonstrates that the relevance of
Said’s writing has not diminished.
Framing in the selected U.S. newspapers takes place in numerous ways.
The U.S. media select and frame issues (such as child marriage and domestic
violence) that bring negative images of Bangladesh to the forefront and keep
other positive issues out of discussion. Hence, framing functions as a process of
exclusion that Ha (2017) terms as ‘framing through exclusion and omission’.
Nadeem Qadir, a senior journalist of Bangladesh, also claims the same regarding
the coverage of Bangladeshi issues by The Economist. He says that The Economist
‘continuously choose to publish write-ups that negatively portray Bangladesh and
ignore ones that are positive’ (Qadir, 2016). Likewise, while discussing issues of
women empowerment, U.S. media hardly talks about the positive development
that has taken place in recent years in Bangladesh.
The lack of investigative and interpretative reports and negative framing of
coverage in U.S. media often provide a partial and superﬁcial view of
Bangladesh to global audiences. Leading U.S. newspapers frame Bangladesh as
a disastrous country due to frequent garment collapse and ﬁre but hardly publish
14 the International Communication Gazette 0(0)
comprehensive reports regarding those issues or exposing the exploitative relation-
ship between buyer and supplier countries, presently the United States and
Bangladesh. Regarding human rights violations, the papers reported on extraju-
dicial killings by the Bangladesh RAB, but failed to mention that RAB was directly
trained by the British government (Karim and Cobain, 2010). News analysis must
examine the contributions of inﬂuential Western countries to human rights viola-
tions in the Third World; otherwise, audiences may believe these violations are a
problem unique to the global South. The U.S. media also fail to provide critical
analysis of environmental issues when reporting on Bangladesh, one of the coun-
tries to suffer most from climate change. NYT and WP articles ignore
that Bangladesh contributes almost nothing to warming the planet, while the
United States is responsible for more than one-fourth of carbon emissions since
1850 and has contributed more than double as much carbon as any other country
(Ge et al., 2014).
The Islamic identity of Bangladesh often takes place as a problematic frame in
the newspapers analyzed for this project. Articles create a secular/progressive vs.
religious/conservative binary, where Islam is framed as a member of the latter
category. If an accused person/group is involved with Islam, it is very likely that
the U.S. newspapers will assign blame to Islam itself. This narrative reinforces
Ahmed and Matthes’s (2017) position that, after 9/11, Islam has been narrowed
to an Orientalist discourse (Saeed, 2007). This is achieved through the construction
of a ‘secular’ vs. ‘conservative’ frame, described from the perspective of a ‘white
man’s world’ which categorizes Muslims as a ‘them’ who are a threat to ‘us’ (Osuri
and Banerjee, cited by Ahmed and Matthes, 2017).
The framing of Bangladesh by the U.S. media as an abode of conﬂict, crises,
disaster, human rights violations, political unrest, killings, and extremism emerges
as a quintessential Orientalist discourse, where Bangladesh as an Orientalist ﬁgure
is placed in binary opposition to the superior West. This reality historically and
consistently created by two powerful U.S. media outlets has the potential to pro-
duce lasting images and stereotypes about a whole nation, religion, and people. It
is important to disrupt such media constructs to shape public opinion in a more
comprehensive manner. The construction of the Third World country as inferior
has always been important in the American imaginary to enable the West to main-
tain its superiority in the production of power.
Drawing from Hall’s (1997) idea of binary opposition being crucial for all clas-
siﬁcation for maintaining oppositional relationships, I argue that the stereotypical
and ethnocentric media portrayals of Bangladesh are important to create fear and
discomfort so as to differentiate the other for the purpose of controlling the other.
Therefore, the coverage of two leading newspapers in the United States can be seen
as a neocolonial move enabling the West to advance its imperial ideology and as a
mechanism of discipline and control over countries in the global South. The frames
identiﬁed in this analysis of NYT and WP thus perpetuate white supremacy and/or
Western hegemony over Third World countries in the post-colonial era and rein-
force an Orientalist colonial image of Bangladesh. Hence, this study attempts to
challenge Western, particularly U.S., media representations of Bangladesh in order
to question the politics of knowledge production. This study, further, calls for a
postcolonial approach to global media ethics that takes into account the historical
context, local epistemologies, the colonial past, and neocolonial present of the
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conﬂicts of interest with respect to the research, author-
ship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no ﬁnancial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication
of this article.
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