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Special Feature

The Velvet Muzzle

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

Shamim Al-Amin had no idea he would spend Press Freedom Day protesting on the street. Shamim and 400 of his fellow journalists from the private TV station Channel 1 were left facing an uncertain future after the government abruptly closed the station citing “irregularities” regarding ownership of its broadcast equipment. The channel was halfway through its evening news bulletin on April 27 when it was yanked off air.

Special correspondent Shamim Al-Amin was in Thimpu covering the SAARC summit at the time. “I got a call on my mobile. It was a colleague from Dhaka. She was sobbing into the phone.”

According to Channel 1 employees, a three-member team of Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) went to the Channel 1 office at Uday Tower in Gulshan and switched off its transmission. The channel was broadcasting its 6:30 pm news bulletin.

Senior Newscaster Shamim Mahbub, who was reading the news, says channel executives pleaded for time. “Many of us were in tears. Our head of news asked the BTRC officer in charge if we could at least finish the newscast. The answer came back in the negative. I made a hurried announcement that Channel 1 was forced to suspend its broadcast. Then we were cut off.”

The closure of the TV channel has raised concerns about press freedom with leading commentators and journalists calling it abrupt, arbitrary and contrary to the spirit of a pluralistic media.

“This is not the right signal when we are trying to move forward as a nation,” says Taleya Rahman, Executive Director of Democracy Watch. “If there were irregularities, were all other legal remedies exhausted before the channel was shut down? The government could have taken the station to court for alleged breach of regulations -- silencing it should have been the very last resort.”

Media rights activists say journalists have reason to be concerned by the manner of the closure at a time when the world is celebrating freedom of the press. The United Nations General Assembly designated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day to commemorate the fundamental principles of press freedom and to remind governments about their commitment to a free and pluralistic media.

According to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

That noble sentiment dates from a more hopeful era: December 1948, when the declaration was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Now, as it was then, freedom of access to information remains imperiled in much of the world. Today, a subtler but no less serious challenge to the free flow of information has been posed by the attempts of some governments to control news media in the name of public interest and good governance.

Channel 1 journalists protest the station's closure. Photo: Star File

The government in shutting down Channel 1 said it was upholding the law. BTRC said Channel 1 had sold off its broadcasting equipment and was using machinery owned by another company. "As per law, the licensee must own the equipment," said Post and Telecommunications Minister Rajiuddin Ahmed Raju.

But industry insiders say the broadcast equipment was imported and owned by Channel 1. However, Prime Bank, which had financed the deal, put the equipment up for auction recently when Channel 1 defaulted on loan payments.

The BTRC says it issued show-cause notices to the channel, asking why it would not be shut down. "We replied properly to all the BTRC notices," said Channel 1 Director Mazidul Islam at a briefing. “We had nothing to hide. We believe the bank's action was premature. We asked the government for time. We were also ready to reconstitute the management if the government wanted. But they didn't give us a chance.”

According to industry sources, Channel 1, whose owners have close ties to the opposition BNP, came under severe financial strain during the tenure of the caretaker government when several of its directors were arrested on corruption charges. With six of the seven directors either in jail or absconding, the sole remaining director Mazidul Islam stepped in to run the company. Although there are allegations of irregularities against Mazidul Islam, Channel 1 employees say the station was being run by professional media people.

Capt (retired) Abul Kashem, General Manager of Channel 1 says the station was trying its best to sort out the differences with the bank, and claimed that the station still owned the broadcasting equipment since the bid winner had not made payment and the broadcast equipment had not been handed over.

“ We duly informed the BTRC about this, but they said our reply was not 'satisfactory'. They did not call for a hearing or a review before shutting us down.”

Channel 1 which had been broadcasting from 2006 aired several popular talk shows. Photo: Star File

Renowned lawyer Dr. Shahdin Malik believes part of the problem is that the regulatory rules are often not applied uniformly, and many companies are unaware of certain legal implications. “The Telecommunications Act 2001 is a complex regulatory law. If a company, especially a media outlet is in violation of certain provisions, the regulator could have imposed a financial penalty or even appointed an administrator to sort matters out. Shutting down the station while it was in the middle of broadcasting a news programme could easily be seen as a violation of media freedom. The station's closure also puts hundreds of people out of work. The government could have given the station a fixed time period and then taken it to court, similar to what happened with ETV.”

It seems clear that Channel 1 did bend the rules when confronted by financial difficulties but to many observers the action of the BTRC was akin to throwing the baby out with the bath water. “The doctrine of greater public interest was clearly not followed here, “ says Dr. Asif Nazrul, professor of law at Dhaka University. “The BTRC says the station violated the rules by using equipment owned by another company. But when we look closer, we see that the channel is the original possessor, and the ownership of the equipment is currently disputed. Whose interest did shutting down the TV station serve?”

Dr Nazrul is critical of the Telecommunications Act 2001, saying it is a law that is inconsistent with the principles of free speech, and gives too much discretion to the regulatory authorities. “It can easily be abused,” says Dr Nazrul, “and allows BTRC to be the judge, jury and executioner. If media outlets can be shut down for any kind of irregularity, I don't think too many media houses will remain. This government is committed to press freedom. We would like to see the government sit down with stakeholders and work towards reform that will be consistent with a free media.”

Suspension of TV channels is hardly new in Bangladesh. In August 2002, the BNP government shut down the operation of ETV after a court verdict. The last caretaker government shut down broadcasting of news channel CSB in September 2007. The present government suspended operation of Jamuna Television in November 2009 during test transmission.

Freedom of speech and expression, and by extension, freedom of the press, is enshrined in the constitution of Bangladesh. Since the present government came to power in January 2009, the media have been able to work in a better climate than under the caretaker government. However, the atmosphere is far from free, with journalists and media personnel facing intimidation, attacks, arrests and murders.

Media watchdogs have recorded dozens of incidents of violence against newsmen since January 2009. However, veteran journalists say the methods of intimidation and manipulation are changing. “There was a time in the 70s when musclemen used to storm the newsroom to prevent a particular piece of news from being printed,” says one editor. “These days it's more of a 'friendly' telephone call, or the withholding of government advertisements. Or even shutting a media house down because it has fallen foul of some technicality.”

Many analysts feel that press freedom will be dealt a dangerous and unprecedented blow, if governments continue to shut down media outlets deemed to be owned by people “sympathetic” to the opposition. They say the government's crusade against irregularities is less than convincing with the Anti-corruption Commission weakened to the point of being toothless

Prof Muzaffer Ahmad, Trustee of Transparency International Bangladesh says: “We don't want an unhealthy situation where the ruling party shuts down TV stations that were given permission during previous governments, and awards licenses to its party loyalists. The practice will then be repeated when the government changes.”

Reporters Sans Frontiers, the international organisation that advocates press freedom, said in a letter addressed to the Prime Minister: “We appeal to you to give Channel 1 a deadline of six months to sort out its situation, during which it would be allowed to continue broadcasting. Such a decision would show tolerance and humanity towards the station's employees and would help to prevent the press freedom situation in Bangladesh from deteriorating.”

Meanwhile, Shamim Al-Amin and his colleagues remain in the lurch. They are critical of the Telecommunications Minister's causal comment that out of work journalists could find work in other outlets. Says one news anchor: “Clearly the ministers have never had to fight for a job in a tough market.”


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