Friday, January 12, 2007

Bangladesh emergency law curbs media

ANIS AHMED

Bangladesh imposed strict media restrictions on Friday as part of emergency laws after the president quit as head of the interim government, postponing elections in a dramatic bid to halt political violence.

Armed troops patrolled the streets of the capital and elsewhere in the country, but there were no signs of trouble following months of violent protests and strikes in which at least 45 people were killed.

The impoverished South Asian country now faces uncertainty over when elections, which had been scheduled for January 22, will take place following President Iajuddin Ahmed's resignation as interim government head.

But Iajuddin, accused of failing to ensure a free and impartial vote, retained his position as head of state and armed forces chief.

Under the state of emergency law, introduced for the first time in 30 years, political activities on the streets have been curtailed and media restrictions put in place.

"The private TV channels will only air the (state-run) Bangladesh Television news through their satellites while the print media will not publish any news criticising the government and its activities," said an Information Ministry official, who asked not be named.

A presidential spokesman said it was impossible to hold the elections as planned on January 22 because most of the president's council of advisers had also quit.

Asked when they might take place, the spokesman said: "It will be decided in due course."

Government officials said privately that it could take months before a new ballot was held.

But concern over the poll delay was tempered by hopes of a respite in the violence which erupted after Prime Minister Begum Khaleda Zia stepped down in October at the end of her five-year term, handing the reins to the interim authority which was tasked to hold polls.

"Political animosity, mistrust and violence have made life miserable for the people and made the future of democracy uncertain," Iajuddin said in a televised address late on Thursday.

RELIEF AND UNCERTAINTY
The decision to postpone the ballot came hours after the United Nations had said it had suspended all technical support for the elections and the European Commission said it had decided to suspend its poll observation mission.

A multiparty alliance headed by Khaleda's rival, former prime minister Sheikh Hasina, had boycotted the election and demanded Iajuddin resign, alleging he favoured Khaleda's Bangladesh National Party (BNP).

"His stepping down as caretaker chief has relieved the nation from months of tension," said a senior government official.

"But it remains to be seen how the country now proceeds towards an election with all parties participating and acceptable to all," added the official, who requested anonymity.

Iajuddin said Fazlul Haque, a senior member of his council of advisers, would act as chief of the caretaker authority until he appointed a new council within "a couple of days".

The new leader would be required to choose a panel of advisers to run the country up to the elections. They would also set a new schedule in consultation with the Election Commission and political parties.
Under a state of emergency, people may not criticise the government and its activities. Protests and marches are banned, as well as printing and broadcasting critical political news, photographs and cartoons, Information Ministry officials said.

Leading newspapers said the media restrictions amounted to gagging the media.

"We want to categorically state that gagging the media is not the answer to solving the present political crisis," the daily Star said in a frontpage comment by its editor, Mahfuz Anam.

"Throughout this crisis ... media played their patriotic and democratic role by pointing out the pitfalls of the position of the two alliances (led by Hasina and Khaleda) and. He the series of mistakes that the caretaker government was making. The public was served well by the role of the media," the Star said. #

Anis Ahmed is Reuters bureau chief in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The article was syndicated on 12 January 2007