VOA transmitted the first-ever eyewitness account of the Ramna Massacre in Dhaka by the Pakistan Army

Voice of America’s (VOA) Bangla-language service - FM and shortwave radio transmissions - officially ended on Saturday, after 63 years of serving Bangladesh and the Bengali speaking Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura and Assam.

The reason being cited for the discontinuation of the Bangla service is the dwindling share of the service’s shortwave radio audiences that are now less than one percent, while VOA’s social media audiences have grown significantly.

“As the demand for TV and online access to news in Bangladesh expands, VOA’s Bangla service program offerings need to be on the platforms its audience already is most active,” said John Lippman, Acting VOA Programming Director, in a press release from the largest US international broadcaster.

Launched in January 1958 when Bangladesh was known as East Pakistan and it was a territory under martial law with no television or private radio, the radio service brought independent news and information about the world and events taking place.

VOA was a staple medium for most people when radio was the primary news medium and shortwave radio transmissions from outside the borders were a lifeline to the Bengali Speaking population for independent news and information.

Bringing to its Bangla listeners remarkable world events such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and Neil Armstrong’s first walk on the Moon - both in the 1960s - to the disintegration of the Soviet Russia in 1991, VOA built its reputation and goodwill in the Indian Sub-continent.

The VOA’s Bangla service played a yeomen service during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

Dhaka-based Researcher Ashraful Islam calls the coverage of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War by the VOA Bangla service as its golden age.

“The period beginning in 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, ushered in a golden period for the service. VOA Bangla’s independent news broadcast not only enthralled audiences but also helped change perception in the west,” said Islam.

“The notion in the west that the liberation struggle in East Pakistan is not a freedom struggle was repudiated by the radio service of the VOA,” he added.

Terming the discontinuation of the VOA Bangla Service as a sad day in the history of journalism, veteran Indian journalist Manas Ghosh reminisced the days when he would tune in to their radio broadcast for getting authentic news of the happenings in Bangladesh during 1971 Liberation War.

“VOA was a reliable source of information about the events of 1971 starting with Pakistan Military’s Operation Searchlight and the ensuing Bangladesh Struggle for independence,” said Ghosh, who was among the few Indian journalists to have reported on the Liberation War from Bangladesh after entering that country.

“It transmitted the first such eyewitness account of the Ramna Massacre in Dhaka by the Pakistan Army on the night of 27 March 1971 in an area which was inhabited by around 250 Hindus,” he stated.

On the fateful night, the Pakistani army doused the Ramna Kali temple with petrol and gunpowder and set it on fire, along with around 50 cows. Reportedly, 101 Hindus including the priest of the temple were killed.

Dr. John E. Rohde of USAID, who visited the place on 29 March, 1971 witnessed charred corpses of men, women and children who had been killed by machine guns and then set on fire.

“Dr. Rohde’s graphic account with all details were broadcasted by the VOA. This is how we came to know about such horrific incidents and the turn of events in general of 1971,” Ghosh recalled.

Dilip Chakraborty, another journalist from the state of West Bengal who covered the war said, “irrespective of the ideological nature of the broadcast, shutting down of any media service is regrettable and indicative of the shrinking space for credible mass media organisations.”

Chakraborty said he doesn’t buy the logic presented by the authorities in charge of the service of dwindling share of audiences behind shutting down the radio service.

“It is failure on part of the authorities of the service to not identify changes required for sustaining the service. Villages on either side of the border i.e. in India and Bangladesh, still make for a good audience for a radio service,” Chakraborty argued.