Few crimes are so vicious as acid throwing. When flung upon the face, common acids used by jewelers and in battery shops and tanneries melt the skin and eat into the bone and eyes, leaving victims permanently disfigured. A life of ostracism and shame awaits them. In Bangladesh, some three hundred people each year lose their natural-born faces in such attacks. Most of them are young women who have offended their attackers by denying them sex or marriage or suitable dowries. But others are maimed in family feuds or land disputes or local rivalries. This hideous crime is new to Bangladesh and has grown alarmingly in the past decade. As editor of Bangladesh's largest-circulation Bangla-language newspaper, Matiur Rahman has stirred the nation to respond.
Rahman was born in 1944 and grew up in the era of decolonization and fervent nationalism that gave birth to East Pakistan and then Bangladesh. He became a Marxist and for twenty-one years edited Dhaka's socialist weekly Ekota. When communism's failures gave him second thoughts, he withdrew from leftist politics to concentrate on journalism. In 1998 he founded Prothom Alo, or First Light, a daily newspaper. Rahman established Prothom Alo's credibility by exposing the missteps of both the government and its foes and by aggressively covering corruption, terrorism, and human rights violations. The newspaper's constructive advocacy and Rahman's own unsparing editorials attracted legions of readers. Today it reaches two million of them.
Prothom Alo covered the alarming rise of acid throwing in Bangladesh. But in 2000 a heartrending case involving a fifteen-year-old girl riveted Rahman's attention. He determined to harness the resources of his newspaper to fight the scourge.
In prominent daily appeals, Rahman 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. Rahman acknowledged each small gift in the newspaper and 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 lands, and shops for others. At the same time, Prothom Alo pressured the government to strengthen laws against acid attacks and the reckless sale of dangerous chemicals.
The response to Rahman's appeal reassured him that "society is not sleeping." By June 2005, some 8.2 million taka had been coursed to over one hundred victims. Moreover, 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.
Rahman has been described as "the navigator of positive social and cultural change" in Bangladesh. He has used his authority as editor of 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. His provocative independence comes at a price. He is regularly harassed and threatened, and the government itself has withdrawn advertising from his newspaper and taken him to court in reprisal for Prothom Alo's critical reporting.
Despite these pressures, Rahman aspires to no other vocation. Readers look to Prothom Alo as "a hope against hope," he says. "I work to use it for the cause of the people."
In electing Matiur Rahman to receive the 2005 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes his wielding the power of the press to crusade against acid throwing and to stir Bangladeshis to help its many victims.