>> Thursday, June 10, 2010
Dr. K.M.A. Malik
When the current Awami League (AL)-led government came to power in January 2009, they promised to allow freedom of expression, not to control media and not to interfere with the judicial process, and so on. But their policies and performance during the last one and a half years in office suggest that there is a wide gap between their public utterances and their actions.
The latest example of the government's dealing with the prestigious daily newspaper Amar Desh and its acting editor Mahmudur Rahman exposes the hypocrisy of the ruling group towards Ã¢â‚¬Ëœembarrassing mediaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ in general and an extreme form of vengeance towards an Ã¢â‚¬Ëœuncompromising editorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ in particular. This sort of actions against a national daily and its editor is totally unjustifiable and unacceptable.
Amar Desh was closed down last week (on June 1) and Mahmudur Rahman arrested after a night-long seize of the paper's headquarters and its printing press by strong contingents (about 200) of police and security personnel. These brutal 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. Mr. Rahman was sent to jail immediately after his arrest. The whole nation witnessed, with great apprehension and horror, another mid-night drama staged by the Awami League government during the closure of Amar Desh and arrest of Mahmudur Rahman.
According to media reports on June 7 (bdnews24.com), the government charged Mr. Rahman with grave charges of Ëœsedition (in addition to fraud, obstructing police in their duties, etc) and took him into police Ëœremandâ„¢ for questioning. The latest news on June 8 is that the remand period has been extended to twelve days and that he has been charged with another serious Ëœcrime of Ëœmilitancy. We do not know the exact language of these charges at the time of writing this article, but it looks like the government wants to Ëœfinish off Mahmudur Rahman by implicating him with Ëœsedition, Ëœconspiracy and ËœIslamic militancy. These are all very serious charges and the government would probably produce fabricated documents and false Ëœwitnesses to Ëœprove the allegations in a Ëœkangaroo court so that Mahmudur Rahman is awarded the heaviest punishment possible. The government does not seem to have an iota of shame in resorting to outright lies and nakedly using the state organs to demonise and destroy the strongest media voice in the country.
The AL leaders and their apologists, say that Amar Desh was closed by the Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Dhaka, who is theoretically in charge of permitting or canceling the publication of a newspaper and that the government has nothing to do with it. Nothing can be further from the truth. The DC could not take such a controversial decision without instructions from Ã¢â‚¬Ëœhigher authorities. In fact, the DC is as guilty as the Ëœhigher authorities for not acting upon the request of Amar Desh owners for the change of publisher's name in time. The facts related to the dispute between the government and Mahmudur Rahman on Amar Desh and leading to the latest episode has been described by eminent journalist Shafiq Rehman (http://www.dailynayadiganta.com/2010/06/06). It is evident from this report that it is not Mahmudur Rahman but the government itself which is guilty of creating such a dangerous situation with unforeseen consequences.
Sheikh HasinaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s role
Is Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina beyond criticism for the government's latest Ëœcrusade against their perceived enemies and Ëœdisobedient media? The answer is most probably Ëœno. It is no secret that the current government is basically Ëœone person show (a legacy of past Bangladesh history); she is surrounded by about sixty ministers and advisers but most of them are only Ëœpost holders and not decision makers. Top posts everywhere in the administration and security services are entrusted only to those who are Hasina loyalists and have pro-India leanings. This is very sad, but true.
There has been a witch-hunt in all government departments including the police and security agencies and those officers suspected to be disloyal to Hasina and India have been ruthlessly thrown out of service. It is also known that those within the ruling party most able to make controversial, crude and motivated comments against political opponents as well as a few with allegations of criminal acts are close to Sheikh Hasina. She is forgiving to the misdeeds of her own family members and followers but totally uncivil and hostile to her political opponents. She enjoys being called the so-called Ëœdaughter of democracy and Ëœchampion of human rights by her sycophants and blind followers, but in reality she is extremely autocratic in decision making, vitriolic to opposition leaders but indifferent to the crimes of her own party leaders and Ëœcadres.
Mahmudur Rahman has been a thorn in the flesh of Hasina government and her foreign patrons, but he is neither a Ëœconspirator nor a Ëœtraitor as alleged by the government. He wrote powerful columns during the highly controversial Moeenuddin-Fakhruddin regime against the arbitrary arrest and detention of both Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina (as well as hundreds of political and business leaders and thousands of grass-root political workers). He argued for quick restoration of democracy and the need for legitimacy by electoral mandate to govern the country. He was one of the very few journalists and columnists to unmask the evil designs of Bangladesh's foreign enemies and their local collaborators including the Ã¢â‚¬Ëœgang of four Generals. Mahmudur Rahman earned nation-wide fame and respect by virtue of his knowledge, personal and intellectual honesty, analytical skill, and, above all, by his sincerity in belief and commitment to democracy and justice. But at the same time he earned the wrath of powerful quarters for being straightforward in expressing his views and exposing their deficiencies and misguided policies to make Bangladesh a vassal state of the Indian hegemons.
To many observers, the latest measures against Amar Desh and Mahmudur Rahman could not have been taken by the state organs/authorities unless ordered, instigated or allowed by Sheikh Hasina herself. She is the Ëœsupreme leader of AL and its allies, and nothing significant happens in Bangladesh today without her order or consent. This tradition of Ëœpersonal power exposes the bankruptcy of the major political parties, and intolerance and cruelty of our rulers as a whole, but especially of those under the AL flag. Their contempt for freedom of expression and rule of law has no parallel. According to one senior political analyst, Sheikh Hasina thinks that her father made Bangladesh and only she and her family have the natural right to own and rule the country. In her mind, no other leader or party have any right to rule the country even if they are elected by the people.
Mahmudur Rahman's life in danger
Everybody knows what the word Ëœremand means in Bangladesh. This dreadful word means psychological pressure, blackmail and physical torture on the detainees to extract confessional statements, extort money, and in extreme cases even to eliminate hostile witnesses. During the BDR investigations, for example, hundreds of detainees were tortured and many (about 70) of those allegedly died Ëœfrom heart attack or they committed Ëœsuicide as the government would claim. But those stories were received with skepticism by most human rights workers who believe that the detainees died due to carelessness and/or excessive torture by the interrogators. In the existing culture of torture in detention and the blanket impunity enjoyed by those responsible for such unlawful practices, we have every reason to be seriously concerned about the safety and life of Mahmudur Rahman.
The human rights organization, Odhikar, is also seriously concerned about the life of Mahmudur Rahman. In a statement issued on June 6, it says The chain of events is very alarming. Mahmudur Rahman has been physically attacked a couple of times. Heavy stones and bricks have been thrown at his car in Bangladesh and he was also attacked with a sharp object during his visit to London, which could have fatally injured him. Given this history the repeated attempts by the government to take him to remand is of grave concern to us.
Odhikar has always fought against custodial torture and death. Despite the fact that the government has made repeated promises to the international community regarding upholding human rights, gross violations of human rights have not abated in the country. In this context, Odhikar is deeply concerned about the life and safety of Mahmudur Rahman. We therefore, appeal to all the human rights defenders to write to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh to ensure the safety of Mahmudur Rahman and to stop all attempts to take him into remand, against the fundamental principles of human rights and international norms.
It is to be noted that eliminating political opponents is nothing new to AL culture. Remember the murder of Siraj Shikder under detention in dubious circumstances on January 2, 1975, and the subsequent boasting by the topmost AL leader? How many people belonging to the opposition parties were killed during the first AL rule (1972-75) by the infamous Rakkhi Bahini and pro-government activists? The commonly quoted figure is twenty-five to thirty-five thousand. How many newspapers were banned? All but four daily newspapers under government control. Was there any guarantee of Ëœnatural death for journalists? No, not for those writing critical reports on the on-going AL corruption and violence, according to the legendary journalist Nirmal Sen.
People may be more conscious now than in 1970s about their political and intellectual freedom, but has the character of the ruling elite changed? Have they become more tolerant and less aggressive towards the opposing points of view and those perceived as contenders or threat to their power, position and privileges? The answer is ËœNo, if we consider the recent moves by the government.
All round condemnation
The banning of Amar Desh and taking into remand its acting editor Mahmudur Rahman have been seriously protested and condemned, both nationally and internationally. The British and US diplomats in Dhaka are reported to have expressed concerns at the governmentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s attempt to gag the media and to curtail freedom of expression.
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 statement reads, We think such steps of the government are a grave threat to the freedom of expression. The decision to close down a newspaper would send a negative message to international arena about tolerance towards others opinions, democratic values and culture in Bangladesh. At the same time it will be seen as an obstacle to practice of democracy and its nurture at home.
Besides, the decision would make seven hundred permanent and part-time staff of the newspaper jobless and throw their families into terrible hardships. We call for immediate withdrawal of the order canceling the declaration of the daily Amar Desh and release of its acting editor Mahmudur Rahman, it said.
Several international media watch-dogs and human rights organisations have also condemned the latest actions by the government against Amar Desh and Mahmudur Rahman.
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 are unworthy of a government that claims to respect the rule of law," the group said in a statement. It also said that members of the National Security Intelligence service had taken the publisher, Hashmat Ali, to their headquarters where he was forced to sign blank sheets of papers.
The 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.
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,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Bob Dietz, CPJ's Asia program coordinator.
The Hong Kong-based rights group Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) 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.
Other media outlets censored/closed
Amar Desh and its acting editor are the latest victims of the AL assault on free media, but not the only ones. According to AHRC, Ã¢â‚¬Å“the cancellation of the declaration of the daily Amar Desh was not an isolated incident in Bangladesh, it was, rather, part of a Ëœtrend that has happened as a continuous process in the closing of two private television channels and the blocking of Facebook in the country without any reasonable grounds.
During the last eighteen months, the government has closed down two TV stations, Channel One and 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 Ëœwrong 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.
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.
Why close Amar Desh and punish Mahmudur Rahman?
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 Ëœrazakar (a fact also confirmed by Hasina's deputy Sajeda Chowdhury), and (5) connection of state minister Kamrul Islam and his family with ËœHekimi or ËœIslamic medicine business and other allegations. (Daily Naya Diganta, June 6, 2010).
The reasons mentioned by Shafik Rehman are all fact-based and valid. But in my opinion, there are also other very crucial reasons (not discussed openly) which led to the government's deadly assault on Amar Desh and Mahmudur Rahman.
Firstly, Amar Desh has been publishing (in several installments), prior to its closure, the 'official' version of the Anisuzzaman Report on BDR Massacre, which clearly implicates the controversial roles of some AL leaders including Nanak, Taposh and Mirza Azam in the dreadful massacre, and the sheer incompetence and/or stupidity of some ministers including Faruk Khan and Sahara Khatun. The Report has raised more questions than providing credible answers on the roles of some AL leaders and some officers within the security/intelligence establishments. As is the usual practice, the government does not want the truth to be revealed, so that their own alleged involvement in the crime is not exposed. The agenda to destroy the BDR and Army has been implemented without people realising how deep was the conspiracy and who masterminded the whole scheme.
Publication of Anisuzzaman Report and other articles related to BDR conspiracy, BSF killings at the border, lowering the guard on the country's own defence and security, etc., could not be tolerated by leaders who have personal, family and political debt to pay to others. They have to strike back at those media and people who are considered as Ëœtrouble-makers and Ëœenemies.
Second, Amar Desh and Mahmudur Rahman, together with some other writers and analysts at home and abroad, have been in the fore-front to expose the imperialist and hegemonic agenda (led by India and supported by the US, EU and some international organisations including the rubber-stamp UN, IMF, World Bank, ADB) to turn Bangladesh into a vassal state like Bhutan (without any disrespect to the Bhutanese people).
Third, Sheikh Hasina is now giving away (for what?) genuine national, economic and strategic interests of Bangladesh to the New Delhi rulers in different fields such as permitting India transit/corridor facilities through Bangladesh at the latter's cost (money borrowed from India at much higher interest rate than available from other sources such as China, South Korea, WB, etc), offering sea port facilities for unknown gains, giving a free hand or preference to Indian citizens and businesses in different sectors including telecommunications, transport, health, media, entertainment, etc. Amar Desh as a media and Mahmudur Rahman as a columnist and campaigner have been constantly asking questions about these offers to India by the AL government without any concrete returns to Bangladesh.
Fourth, India's water aggression against Bangladesh (Farakka, Tipaimukh, Teesta, Brahmaputra, etc) is a topic AL wants not be raised and discussed. Amar Desh has become an enemy of AL, Hasina and India by raising this issue. Photographic depictions of the dry river beds of Padma, Teesta and Brahmaputra in recent issues of Amar Desh must have embarrassed the incumbent rulers and their Indian patrons.
Fifth, Amar Desh has given prominence to the news and views on the deployment of Indian Commandos (special forces) in different places in the country including its Embassy in Dhaka and bringing in Indian Ëœair marshals in Dhaka airport. These steps and also the arrests and handover of some leading Indian insurgent leaders in secret operations have been published in Amar Desh, to great annoyance of AL and India.
Sixth, Hasina under Indian pressure has distanced Bangladesh from China, entered into secret military pact with India in a scheme to turn Bangladesh army into a reserve force for India's ongoing wars in the north east and possible future conflict with China. Mahmudur Rahman has raised a strong voice against this evil design and also against Bangladesh becoming a Ëœjunior partner in the US-India-Israel led Ã¢â‚¬Ëœwar on terror.
Amar Desh and Mahmudur Rahaman have become deadly targets by the AL government and their foreign patrons for many visible and invisible reasons. No body should think that this is a simple legal or procedural dispute. It is a declaration of war on free media by a regime, which is contemptuous to opposing political views and revenge-driven. We must realise that if they succeed in Ëœfinishing off Amar Desh and Mahmudur Rahman now, there would be more victims in the coming days and months.
[The author is a former Professor, Dhaka University (Bangladesh) and Lecturer, Cardiff University, UK. Contact e-mail: email@example.com]