Rafiqul Islam Montu is a journalist who writes extensively on the hardships the people of coastal Bangladesh face due to climate change. While his frontline journalism spurs local administration into finding solutions, it has brought him multiple awards. The Coastal Journalism Network he started helps journalists report about climate-induced coastal issues.
What drew you to journalism, coastal journalism in particular?
I was born in Barguna, a small coastal district in Bangladesh. There is a small river near my house. Another large river named Payra joined the Bay of Bengal some distance away. Another river Bishkhali also joined the sea at the same place. So I have many childhood memories of these rivers and the Bay of Bengal.
As a child I walked about three kilometres from my village to a school in the city. Observing nature on my way to school brought many questions to my mind: Why are the big rivers turning into dead canals? Why are farmers not getting irrigation water? Why do people from coastal villages go to town? Why is the level of salt in the water increasing?
Searching for answers to these questions led me to writing. So my writing started in school. As no one was interested in publishing my articles, I made my own handwritten newspaper.
When I got into journalism, from the early days, I noticed that coastal issues were neglected in the local and national media. But the entire coast is the birthplace of thousands of stories. And now here I am, writing for national and international media.
I see the whole coast – having traversed the 710 kilometres of it from east to west – as the village of my childhood. Naturally I am drawn and committed to writing about it.
You believe only in ground reporting. Why?
In journalism, I have always valued the voice of the people. People's words are the main element of my stories. The human voice reflects his suffering, his emotions, his laughter, his tears.
Moreover, climate change is a large part of my stories. To understand the effects of climate change, we need to go to the families to understand what they are going through. So it is very important to start the stories from the ground.
Through ground reporting I bring to light the stories of people who are left out of the media. My notebooks are filled with the stories of people who have not had the opportunity to talk to any media before.
I tour all the 19 coastal districts of Bangladesh. I come across many stories that have not been written about. When we go and meet people, our perceptions change. I stay connected to the people as I attach a lot of importance to follow-up stories. This helps me keep track of the changes. Many of my new stories happened during the follow-up process.
There is no substitute for going to the field to do coastal journalism. But I must add that my field network helped me report from home during the pandemic. Reporting from the frontline is very important to get the story of climate change right.
Tell us about your frontline experience
There are many communities along the coast of Bangladesh. I choose the most vulnerable ones. I stay in a village or an island with the local people for several days, which gets me in-depth information. Sometimes I get a lot of unexpected information. The people trust me. I eat with them, sleep with them. This makes the story deeper.
I listen to their stories. When they speak, their voice becomes faint. Often they cry when they talk. Their stories stir me. Hits me hard.
And when I hear of danger to the coastal people, I go to them.
Abdur Rahman's house was in Dhalchar Island of Charfasson upazila in Bhola District. He is a hilsa fish trader. I was there when he lost his house. My eyes became wet. I watched in horror as the concrete building fell into the river. Having lost everything, he moved his family to a place called Dakshin Aicha in Charfasan upazila. But due to his business he lives alone in Dhalchar.
For Aktar Hossain, a fisherman, Dhalchar island was home since birth. His family lived in a house built as part of a government housing project. The houses of this project were lost due to river erosion. So Aktar Hossain decided to leave Dhalchar and go elsewhere with his family. He bought a house in the government housing project of Tulatali area, south of Charfaason upazila.
The day Akhtar Hossain left Dhalchar, I was standing on the river bank. They were all crying. I could not hold back my tears.
Now he manages by fishing and by taking up odd jobs.
These people do not know what climate change is. But live through it.
These stories of the coastal people are my stories. I have to let the world know their stories.
Do you see any impact for your stories?
Being a frontline journalist has taken my works to the international stage, driving home the urgency of tackling the climate crisis. The local administration looks into the matter when I write stories and they try to solve the problems.
Not only the local administration, but the issues are brought to the attention of the national administration as well. My work has sparked the interest of the Bangladeshi and international media. Young journalists of Bangladesh seek my help to work on coastal issues. Several new portals focusing on coastal news have been launched.
One example of impact is the ‘floating’ Manta community. People of this community live in boats. They have no house in the land. They were deprived of civil services. Their children did not go to school. In case of illness, they could not get the necessary medical care.
After I wrote their story, some local publications also wrote about them, and the government took action. Houses have been built for the Manta community. An NGO has built a school for them. People are now getting government entitlements.
When and why did you start the Coastal Journalism Network (CJN)? What do you aim to achieve through this network?
Political news dominates the Bangladeshi media. Despite being so large and so important, the coastal region of Bangladesh received little attention.
There are many stories in the coastal areas of Bangladesh. I can't write them all in my lifetime. I realised that we needed more journalists to write these stories. So I started the Coastal Journalism Network in 2014.
Through CJN, we organise workshops for journalists working along the coast. Now more than 500 journalists are members of CJN. We help them plan, pitch and write the story. Sometimes I go to the field with them, show them how to report from the field, in addition to helping them with sourcing other relevant information. Sometimes we provide formal training. But individual journalists are given issue-based training.
With this, the number of coastal stories in local and national media is increasing. After these stories are published, local administration takes a proactive role in finding solutions. They also take the issues into consideration while making long-term plans.
In 2016, I wrote an article in the national and regional newspapers of Bangladesh proposing November 12 as 'Coast Day'. This article generated widespread public support. I chose the date because on 12 November, 1970, a million people died when a cyclone hit Bangladesh. Observing Coast Day helps us highlight the coastal issues. Because the prosperity of the country depends on the development of the coastal region.