Friday, January 12, 2007

Gagging the media is not the answer

MAHFUZ ANAM

In a move reminiscent of the autocratic era of General Ershad, Bangabhaban yesterday issues a verbal instruction through an unidentified official of the Press Information Department (PID) to the TV news channels and the press not to print any news, pictures and cartoons and editorials critical of the present government. We want to categorically state that gagging the media is not the answer to solving the present political crisis. We all know who, how and by what means the present political crisis was created that forced the declaration of emergency. Throughout this crisis lasting over the last several months media played their patriotic and democratic role by pointing out the pitfalls of the position of the two alliances and the series of mistakes that the caretaker government was making, especially the mistakes that were being made by the chief advisor. We repeatedly warned against keeping the advisory council totally out of the picture and the unilateralism practiced by the chief advisor.

The public was served well by the role of the media. In fact but for the media people of this country would have been deprived of their "Right to Know" about how their country was being run. We can also proudly say that the media served the cause of democracy and of the constitution to uphold which the President was repeatedly saying that he was acting.

Today we cannot understand why this restricting verbal order has been issued against the media. We find the verbal nature of the order to be against the public interest and suspect the action is the brainchild of some particular officials and not of the government. Any order of a government is always written. Since it is not a written order we cannot consider it to have the backing of the law. This move cannot serve the cause of betterment of the country and definitely not the cause of democracy. If holding a free and fair election is the ultimate end of the emergency then gagging the press is the exact antithesis of that end.

There cannot be any public choice, public exercise of free judgement and practice of democracy with a censored press.

When there are so many problems to address, so many wrongs to right, so many manipulators of the election process to bring to book, so many abusers of power to identify and expose, the first action of emergency was a verbal order to gag the press.

Today one of the best achievements of Bangladesh is its free, responsible and independent press. The people feel proud of their media and the world rightfully praises and respects Bangladesh for that achievement. What an irony it will be if it should be the first victim of the new dispensation!

We believe this move to be against the interest of democracy and of Bangladesh. Just as mistakes after mistakes have brought us to this stage of political crisis, the decision of gagging the press is nothing but a continuation of those mistaken decisions. We demand an immediate verbal withdrawal of this decision, an apology to the media and punishment to those who are responsible for giving such a verbal order. Let the media continue to play its constructive and facilitating role to resolve the present political crisis. Friends of democracy never gag the press, only autocrats do. The people of Bangladesh will never accept autocrats. #

Mahfuz Anam is editor of Daily Star, published from Dhaka, Bangladesh. The article was published in Daily Star, January 12, 2007