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Is media freedom at stake in Bangladesh?

Edit Date:7/17/2010 12:00:00 AM

 Bangladesh is facing a crucial time regarding freedom of media as it is being threatened, controlled, and even being foreced to close down by the state apparatus. Media is the mirror of society. People can see and learn from media whatever happens in the society and its effect in their daily lives. Free press is considered as a heart of democracy. It is like a nightmare to democratize a country without actual freedom of media. Media keeps people informed and, raises awareness among them to fight for their rights and freedoms. Functionally, there is little freedom of expression exists, if the governemnt itself puts restrictions on this prime role of media. Media in our country, either electronic or printing, confronts intense obstacles to articulate the truth. The scenario of suppression of media by state is not new in our country. Every successive government is exercising this doohickey to sustain their power. However recently, few arbitrary actions of the current Awami League Regime against one TV channel and one esteemed daily and its editor have brought the question of AL’s anti-freedom (BAKSAL) tendency again in front of people of the world.

The suppression over media freedom by Awami League abusing state power started with the introduction of BAKSAL on January 20, 1075. The period is the dark chapter in the history of Bangladesh in genral and of media freedom in particular. With the killing of democracy and rule of law, they snatched away from the people the freedom of press, freedom of expression, fundamental rights along with all political rights. All national dailies and periodicals were banned except 4 government-controlled dailies. Under the promulgation of the Newspaper Ordinance (June 1975) by the BAKSAL government, the declarations of all but four state owned newspapers were annulled.

They have repeated the story again and proved that AL regime is always an artibitray regime. It never allows freedom of expression, instead is willing to restrict popular voice. On June 1, 2010, the government of Bangladesh closed a Bangla-speaking national daily newspaper, the Daily Amar Desh.

They arrested the acting editor Mr. Mahmudur Rahman in his office on June 2. The process applied by the Government of Bangladesh in this case shows an extreme arbitrariness. This includes the sealing off of the newspaper and its printing presses; the hurried cancellation of the declaration after the alleged arbitrary detention of Mr. Hashmat Ali; the forced signatures on prepared draft statements; the complaints, arrest and detention of Mahmudur Rahman. Different journalists have reported that, Mahmudur Rahman was detained by the National Security Intelligence (NSI) for about six hours and forced to sign two papers, stating that he was not the publisher of Amar Desh and that “legal steps can be taken as his name is being printed as the publisher”. These actions were taken without any court order, but on the basis of an allegation extracted under duress by the National Security Intelligence (NSI) from the publisher of the paper, though the law titled 'Code of Criminal Procedure [Amendment] Bill 2010' proposed not to issue direct warrants of arrest in defamation cases against newsmen before issuing summons. According to media reports, the government charged Mr. Rahman for alleged ‘sedition’ (in addition to fraud, obstructing police in their duties, etc) and took him into police ‘remand’ for questioning. It is also reportedly published that he has been tortured in the detention cell and during the remand period.

The move comes only a month after the Bangladeshi government banned the pro-opposition private television network, Channel 1. The authority took the decision against the station, accusing of “violating rules”. Bangladesh has 15 private radio and TV channels. Human rights groups are concerned that the suspension of Channel 1 will definitely have negative impact on the press freedom and freedom of expression, while favor censorship and government control over people’s right to information.

Channel 1 started its official broadcasting on 24 January 2006. With the suspension of the channel the government not only restricts media freedom but also violates the rights of 400 people working in the TV station. Besides, during the last eighteen months, the government has closed down TV stations like Channel Jamuna TV, and banned DeshCalling blog, Youtube and Facebook on various pretexts. It has closed several TV talk shows and imposed different restrictions on what can be telecast. There are informal instructions by the government agencies not to invite ‘wrong’ kind of people in TV programmes. Newspapers editors have been asked not to print material critising government and its policies. Mr. Nurul Kabir, Editor of the daily New Age was attacked by pro-government hooligans for his strong criticisms of some government policies.

These actions do not comply with the State’s obligation to promote and protect freedom of expression. The Constitution guarantees press freedom and freedom of expression within "reasonable restriction", though we are witnessing totally different scenario. The press should do what it can to minimize the abuse of power but we should also try to understand with clarity why and how press freedom can enrich human lives, enhance public justice, and even help to promote economic and social development. Balanced reporting, looking at both sides of an issue, is the hallmark of journalistic integrity. To disallow criticism merely for partisan reasons, whether such censorship is enforced by the government itself or by powerful private citizens, would seem a betrayal. Press freedom is the key to a functioning democracy. People’s opinion and participation can be voiced and channeled through the media. Controlling media freedom is nothing but asking people not speak up for their rights and preventing them from doing their duties as responsible citizens. While on opposition, Bangladesh Awami League was always voicing in favor of freedom of press and freedom of expression. It was the main beneficiary of free media in Bangladesh as its leaders were able to criticize the previous government as well the military backed interim regime taking the advantage of the free media. But now, after being in power, they have taken a ridiculous U-turn on this issue.

The government restraints over media freedom in genral and banning of Amar Desh and taking into remand its acting editor Mahmudur Rahman in particular have been seriously protested and condemned, both nationally and internationally. Editors of 27 national dailies, weeklies, news agencies and periodicals in a joint statement on June 5 demanded immediate withdrawal of the order canceling the declaration of the daily Amar Desh and release of its acting editor Mahmudur Rahman. (New Age, June 6, 2010).

The British and US diplomats in Dhaka are reported to have expressed concerns at the government’s attempt to gag the media and to curtail freedom of expression. Paris-based international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) condemned Bangladesh authorities for closing Amar Desh and expressed concerns about the paper's detained editor. "The night-time raid by armed police on the daily's headquarters and the use of force to arrest Editor Mahmudur Rahman all are unworthy of a government that claims to respect the rule of law," the group said in a statement. Similarly, Vienna-based (Austria) International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists, expressed concerns. “We are concerned that the Bangladeshi government is using administrative sanctions to limit the newspaper's ability to criticize its policies," said IPI Director David Dadge. "I urge Prime Minister Sheik Hasina to live up to her promises and ensure that journalists are allowed to distribute information and opinions free of harassment or intimidation," he added.

Furhtermore, the New York based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued similar statements. It termed the shutdown as politically motivated. "Using 200 police to shut down a newspaper in the middle of the night over alleged publication irregularities is excessive and suggests the government is trying to suppress a critical media outlet,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator.

The Hong Kong-based rights group Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) also urged the Bangladesh government to stop media repression. It urged the Bangladeshi authorities to restore the publication of the newspaper and also to release the detained media workers immediately and withdraw fabricated cases against them. Many other political, media and community groups both in Bangladesh and abroad including The Voice for Justice World Forum, Justice for Bangladesh, Journalist Rights International, Amar Desh Readers Forum, Campaign for Freedom of Press and Media based in London have condemned the government actions and demanded withdrawal of ban on Amar Desh and release of Mahmudur Rahman. The report on Amar Desh and Mahmudur Rahman got headlines in the foreign press including BBC, the Guardian in UK, The Hindu in India, and AFP.

It is now clear that the AL government has been suppressing the media in fear of criticism of its own actions that threaten the democratic process and rule of law in Bangladesh. But why the government has let loose such a reign of terror specifically on Amar Desh and Mahmudur Rahman when it is already under severe criticism on the recent Facebook ban? According to journalist Shafiq Rehman, Amar Desh and Mahmudur Rahman are targets of government vendetta for five reasons: The paper has published (1) regular reports on the deteriorating law and order situation and exposing the criminal activities of its youth and student wings, (2) statistical reports on the crease in the price of essential items, (3) report on the connection of Sheikh Hasina’s son Shajib Wajed Joy with the US oil giant Chevron and alleged corruption, (4) report that the father of Engineer Mosarraf Hossain, a minister and Sheikh Hasina’s close relative, was a ‘razakar’ (a fact also confirmed by Hasina’s deputy Sajeda Chowdhury), and (5) connection of state minister Kamrul Islam and his family with ‘Hekimi’ or ‘Islamic’ medicine business and other allegations. (Daily Naya Diganta, June 6, 2010).

However, the politics of censorship attempts to isolate us from each other. Suppression OVER freedoms diminishes our lives, reduces our knowledge, stifles our humanity, and maims our ability to learn from each other. To overcome these handicaps, we need freedom of communication, including press freedom. What can be more important than that? We need to keep, in mind press freedom and freedom of expression are the foremost components of democracy and without democracy, independence can’t be enjoyed, and hence human rights is also absent. In this world of disunity and illegalities, journalists are facing more risks. But gradually the call for freedom of press or for free media is going to be loud worldwide. Reason is that without the free media, democracy is helpless.

The responsibility of the media is to lead the people to the path of truth with correct reports. They are always in favour the oppressed, deprived, poor’s, victims of torture and persecutions. They fight for the establishment of rule of law, introduction of true democracy in state machineries and political system. From their professional duties and responsibilities, they are working amidst innumerable risks, threats and humiliations.  So we need to come back from this alarming practice and make secure the lives of journalists to pen truly. We need to know how to respect and evaluate others opinions to consolidate democracy. Our ability to respect others would lead our country towards a peaceful and flourishing Bangladesh. In fact, an outstanding feature of democracy is that where many people live with their dissimilar opinions. So we need to let our media to represent these diverse opinions freely without government interference, threat, and intimidation. 

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