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     Volume 4 Issue 57 | August 5 , 2005 |

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Cover Story



Sharier Kabir, another journalist punished for his work.

On July 10, 2005, Former Justice Abu Syed Ahmed, the new chairman of the Press Council, sent a disturbing circular to newspaper offices, where he urged, "...newspapers should not publish any news that may destroy or harm the country's independence and sovereignty in or outside the country, or may increase public suffering, even if that particular NEWS IS GENUINE/TRUE…" It was not exactly a bolt from the blue. It was a sequel to the virulent media bashing of a number of influential cabinet members and ruling party MPs of little significance. But what is the purpose behind such an orchestrated media bashing that was followed by the Press Council's sermon?

Perhaps Justice Ahmed has provided a clue in the second part of the circular. He threatened that the Press Council was considering bringing in a time-worthy amendment to the Press Council Act, under which journalists can be punished with something more than 'reprimands'. Perhaps here lies a hint of what the government has in mind. Maybe the government is contemplating a few restrictive measures to curtail press freedom?

Only four days before the Press Council sent its stunning suggestions, Speaker Jamiruddin Sircar advised the law minister to amend the law regarding freedom of the press, because the existing law, he believed, allowed the journalists to misuse the freedom.

A photojournalist who was beaten up by members of the NSI.

This is not the first time that Speaker Jamiruddin Sircar however, has made such a remark about the media. His distaste of the media has found expression many other times. He is the one who limited the journalists' access to the parliament when he banned private TV channels from the parliament. He has also made sure that journalists cannot enter the parliament lobby, as is the general norm in parliaments all over the world.

However, it is Finance Minister Saifur Rahman who has proved himself to be the greatest media hater. Rahman, on July 25, termed the local media to be the "worst enemy" of the country for projecting "our negative image". Rahman certainly takes great pleasure in media bashing, especially when in the government. He made similar comments only the other day.

"Some 100 to 150 local newspapers are harming Bangladesh the most. They are tarnishing the image of the country abroad by means of writing fictitious news stories every day," Rahman said at a seminar on March 12 this year.

Earlier, during another diatribe against the country's media on August 27, 2003, the finance minister found the "media coverage of the incidents of murders and kidnaps" "negative" and called it a "nuisance"…"rubbish" for "we often get embarrassed by the foreign media when they ask us about this kind of negative news".

On October 21, 2004, communications minister Nazmul Huda publicly 'wondered' on October 21 last year as to "whether the journalists should be brought under the jurisdiction of the RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) for their information terrorism".

The story doesn't end here. The government or a section of the government seems to have segregated some journalists, who they find unbending or uncompromising. They use contempt of court as their tool to harass the targeted media delinquents. There are examples that a ruling party member has lodged contempt suits against editors, reporters and publishers of just two newspapers while the same news has been covered by almost all the major dailies of the country. Two such incidents involved two ruling party MPs -- Nasiruddin Pintu and Salauddin Qader Chowdhury -- who pressed defamation suits against the editors and publishers of two newspapers, leaving others undisturbed.

The relationship between the government and media turned sour as early as 2001 because of its extensive coverage of minority oppression.

Mahfuz Anam, editor and publisher of The Daily Star, one of the more frequent victims in such incidents, specifies the way the state intimidates the press. "Why is it that an arrest warrant is issued immediately after a contempt case is filed, if the real intention is not to harass? The court can just summon us."

The harassment is more acute for reporters, especially those who work in remote districts. Recently, some five reporters of Kushtia had to flee their homes, for reporting misdeeds of a local ruling party MP. False cases have been pressed against them and to evade arrest they are now staying in Dhaka. The recent beating up of some photojournalists by members of National Security Agencies (NSI) also reflect the government's antipathy towards journalists. The photojournalists were beaten up because they were taking pictures of a clear wall that happened to be the boundary wall of NSI headquarters at Segunbagicha.

But what evoked such hatred in the government for the media, or for a section of it? With a politicised administration, a dysfunctional parliament and pervasive corruption in every stratum of life, an independent media is the only thing people can rest their faith on. Since independence, and even before that, the mainstream media has never betrayed the people and has always fought for their cause. This government, or for that matter the two previous ones, have managed to establish their control over everything else except the media -- thanks to the media; and that's why the media never stops to irk the government, nor will it ever give respite to any bad government and will continue to report only the truth.

The BNP-led four-party alliance government's relation with the media turned sour quite early -- right when it came to power in 2001. When harrowing tales of brutal attacks on the AL activists and the minority community, allegedly perpetrated by BNP cadres all over the country became headlines in the newspapers, the government, especially the then home minister Altaf Chowdhury, laughed them off terming them half true and half fictitious.

Muntasir Mamun (L) and Selim Samad (R) were arrested for writing on minority oppression.

The four party alliance government with at least two Islamic parties in the alliance, tried every means to hush up these stories -- on the one hand terming them false, on the other hand accusing the media that had been faithfully depicting what was going on, of tarnishing the country's image abroad. Writers including Muntasir Mamun, Shariar Kabir and Selim Samad were arrested and allegedly tortured for reporting on minority oppression. But nothing stopped the media from continuing to report the real happenings that only intensified the government's antagonism for the media.

Over the next, almost four years, many more issues came up and the relation between the two continued to grow bitter. Bangla Bhai, a self-styled zealot, came on the scene under the banner of Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh (JMJB) in Rajshahi, and killed some four dozen people, mostly members of outlawed underground political parties. Tales of barbaric torture resulting in death poured in the media accompanied by pictures of people hung with their feet tied to the tree and marks of merciless beating all over the body. But, for reasons never explained, the government attempted to hush it up, at times denying the very existence of Bangla Bhai and at times justifying his actions. It took the government several months, more than 50 lives, and ceaseless and ever-mounting media pressure to finally recognise that Bangla Bhai existed and that his so-called movement must be stopped. The PM herself had to order his arrest, but the local administration and a number of local ruling party MPs and a minister, who have been allegedly playing patron to Bangla Bhai, made sure that he escaped untroubled.

No doubt, the government, or at least a section of it, was extremely unhappy due to the print media's consistent pursuing of Bangla Bhai's terrorism that damaged the government's credibility and forced it into taking actions against him.

Finance Minister Saifur Rahman, a great advocate of the idea that newspapers tarnish the country's image.

Then came RAB, and the government found another reason to bash the media. Since its formation about 14 months back, RAB has been able to cut down the number of the more violent crimes and some people are actually appreciating RAB's 'crossfire spree'. Leading newspapers and through them the civil society and human rights organisations of the country have consistently questioned the merit of taking recourse to such extreme measures that inspire extra-judicial killings and is contradictory to all the values we as a nation stand for. RAB's actions are a clear violation of constitutional, democratic rights, as well as synonymous of demeaning the judiciary and a huge blow to establishing rule of law, a prerequisite for a civilised society.

The media also seems to have angered the government by highlighting the price hike of essentials from time to time. Price rise of different food items like rice, onions, chilli, oil, sugar, some vegetables, especially eggplants during the Ramadan in 2003 placed heavy burdens on the lives of people of the middle class and lower middle class bracket, not to mention the poor. Both print and electronic media naturally covered the issue in some detail. They did it mainly to reflect an issue of great public importance, neither to harass the government nor to create panic among the people and certainly not to help increase the prices of things, as some influential people in the government would want us to believe.

The PM in her wrap-up speech in the budget session claimed on July 9 that "prices of essentials have not increased much", "newspapers are unnecessarily making an issue of it".

But on July 11, came out the government report on retail prices of different essential commodities, which showed that the prices of different varieties of rice -- fine, medium and coarse -- varied from 4.5 to 5 per cent in a month and from 17.5 to 19 per cent in a year.

The report, prepared by the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh and the Department of Agricultural Extension, categorically said that the present retail prices of the fine varieties of rice are Tk 22-25, of medium variety Tk 19-21 and coarse Tk 16.50-18. The prices were Tk 21-24, Tk 18-20 and Tk 16-17 a month ago, and Tk 19-21, Tk 16-18 and Tk 14-15 a year before.

Nazmul Huda once publicly suggested that journalists should be brought under jurisdiction of RAB.

The same report showed that the percentage of monthly price hikes for essentials like green chilli, onion, egg, hilsa, garlic, potato, red lentil, salt and sugar are 214.29, 25, 15.38, 15.15, 12.36, 11.76, 7.77, 4.34 and 2.90 respectively. The percentage of annual price increase was 120 for green chillis, 9.37 for onions, 3.13 for eggs, 18.75 for hilsa fish, 66.67 for garlic, 18.19 for red lentils, 16.39 for sugar and 9.09 for salt.

The issue of the interminable violence against the Ahmadiyyas, a minority sect in the country that has been widely covered in the major national dailies might also have irked the government, as the event attracted attention of the international community, which appealed to the government to protect the victims. The government instead of confronting the fanatic group under the banner of Khatme Nabuat, encouraged them by choosing to play the silent spectator. At one stage it actually directly took side with the zealots and put a ban on all sorts of Ahmadiyya publications. One of the coalition partners-- Islami Oikkya Jote -- is widely believed to be behind the so-called anti-Ahmaddiya movement and they are credited to influence the government in their favour. A number of US leaders including US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia, Christina Rocca, visited the Ahmadiyya place of worship in Dhaka and urged the government to take actions against the culprits again and again. The government did precious little to stop the attacks on the Ahmadiyya community in Dhaka, Brahmanbaria and practically all over the country. Their homes were set on fire, their mosques forcibly occupied and signboards changed -- and it was not just a one-off incident, but continued to happen again and again, showing the government's unequivocal support for the zealots. The issue must have dented the government's image abroad, but was it for the media which reported the incidents or the government's absolute inaction in resisting the hate campaign of the community that is responsible for damaging its image?

Speaker Jamiruddin Sircar was responsible for limiting journalists' access to the parliament.

Interestingly, instead of trying to address the real problem, that is, controlling the price, or the rise of religious extremism, or arresting Bangla Bhai, or banning and resisting the so-called Khatme Nabuat, the government has continuously chosen to first ignore, then deny and finally blame the media for presenting a negative image of the country.

This ignore-and-deny-and-finally-blame-the-media tactic of the government might give the coalition leaders an illusion of changing the country's fate for the better, conveniently turning a blind eye to reality.

The government policy regarding import of news print only reinforces the notion that the government appears to be trying to gag the media. At least, highest-circulated vernacular daily The Prothom Alo's Editor Matiur Rahman, believes so. He writes in his commentary, titled "Is the government taking a stance against the media?" that the government is trying to make newspaper publication and its business difficult in Bangladesh, with the ultimate motive to control the media.

Chastised for the Truth

Matiur Rahman has faced defamation suits twice and contempt of court once for printing the truth, SWM's Mustafa Zaman talks to him about the freedom of press and the effort by the present government to curb its free reign.

SWM: A circular has been sent to newspaper offices that said that news that goes against the interest of the nation and may incite the populace should not be printed, what is your reaction to this?

Matiur Rahaman: A free and impartial press speaks the truth, which can be unacceptable to many. The stance of the press often brings it face to face with the people in power. This government is propagating the notion that the press is out to tarnish the image of the nation, but the same people were dependent on the free media before they came to power.

SWM: How do you think the press is working against the state by attempting to tarnish its image?

MR: No one can deny that there is corruption in the government, likewise there is the process of politicisation to bring everything under the aegis of the incumbent parties, there is strife, and there are failures. This government has utterly failed in many sectors. The election promises of the BNP-led four party alliance are yet to be fulfilled. It is these factors that go to tarnish the image of the current government. The press has only mirrored what is really there. We don't want to tarnish the image of the nation. We often highlight the achievements, the advances made by individuals in the face of all kinds of adversities. We ourselves are involved in many socially important work. As far as women, agriculture or sports are concerned we have always been making efforts to bring into light the advances made or the contribution made by people.

SWM: Where there is a provision of issuing summons, arrest warrants are being made against the publishers of newspapers on flimsy grounds. Is there an agenda behind it?

MR: In most occasions these are politically motivated moves. The court has little to do with this, as there is a direct intervention of individuals, or ministers and lawmakers. They are simple cases of harassment. In Pabna a case was filed against journalists regarding a report on the unlawful actions by Shibir cadres, and the journalists were taken to the court, it could've been solved by the Press Council.

SWM: Can the Press Council take a stand in favour of the journalists?

MR: I don't see any justification of having the Press Council. Whenever a new government comes to power their puppets are installed in the Press Council, and it has no role to play in favour of the free and independent press.

SWM: In Kushtia, journalists were ousted from their own home; in Dhaka, photojournalists were beaten up; how do you thing the journalist community should counter this, what is their task?

MR: Journalists should carry on their duties, they should remain true to their ethics of printing the truth. It is the readers who will not accept a newspaper that prints lies. Each newspaper faces the readers on a daily basis. Newspapers are being evaluated regularly. If a newspaper is detrimental to the nation, it dies out, we have seen that in history. If a newspaper is accepted, that is a sign that the people are giving it the consensus. It is the intolerant politicians who hate the free press and consider it their enemy.

SWM: All the newspapers ran the same news but it is the daily Prothom Alo and The Daily Star against which cases of defamation were filed, why do you think this is happening?

MR: It is because of our popularity, our firm footing in this sector. Journalists have been working despite the adverse situations. In the last forty or so years we have faced threats, repression but in the end we have progressed and kept our heads high, nothing could rob us of our right to speak freely.

SWM: How do you evaluate the present government in the context of the last one as far as press freedom is concerned?

MR: Politicians want favour and support, they hate criticism. I don't see much difference between the two eras. Even during the last AL government we were faced with the same diatribes in and outside the parliament. The situation is the same today.

The price hike of newsprint in the international market -- over the last two years prices of each ton of newsprint has increased by Tk 13,000; and if taka's devaluation is added to it the increase has been Tk 15,000 -- has already put pressure on the country's newspaper industry. The government, instead of empathising with the newspaper industry appears to be playing a dubious role. The people involved with the newspaper industry have been urging the government to lower the import tariff, a demand which the government should give serious consideration to, especially due to the international price hike of newsprint. But to their utter dismay the government actually increased the import tariff to 25 percent. The move is bound to hurt the industry. Noticeable is the fact that import tariff on newsprint is 5 percent in India and Nepal, 6 percent in Pakistan and 2.5 percent in Sri Lanka.

Establishing democracy and nursing it to maturity is impossible without the freedom of press and freedom of expression. In a democracy, the media and government help each other to find a firm footing and flourish. A free media if and when it finds fault with the government, does it to correct it, not to discredit it. A real democratic government would constantly take help from the media, not try to suppress it. Any attempt to restrict or limit press freedom to have a loyal and obedient media is an unhealthy sign for any democracy.

On November 27, 2004, PM Khaleda Zia, on the occasion of the Press Club's 50th anniversary, claimed that her government is a great believer of multi-party democracy and freedom of the press and freedom of expression. These form the basis on which a strong democracy stands. She also gratefully recalled journalists' contribution to the movement for establishing democracy. One hopes she meant it.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2005