Wednesday, January 31, 2007

ATTACKS on the PRESS in 2006: BANGLADESH

A Worldwide Survey by the Committee to Protect Journalists

Rioting kicked off a three-month electoral season in October as the ruling Bangladesh National Party (BNP) was accused of bias in the installation of an interim government and election commissioner. Fears of physical attacks against a politically divided press corps deepened along with the political crisis, as leaders of the rival Awami League threatened to boycott the general election scheduled for January 2007. Journalists were tasked with covering a time of great uncertainty: President Iajuddin Ahmed, formerly a ceremonial head, installed himself as chief of a caretaker government and warned that the military could be brought in to quell violence.

Throughout the year, routine violence against journalists continued to inhibit coverage of corruption, poverty, and rising Islamic militancy. For the first time in three years, CPJ documented no cases of journalists killed for their work—but members of the press were threatened, intimidated, and physically attacked by party and student activists, police, criminal gangs, and fundamentalist groups. Journalists outside of the capital, Dhaka, were at particular risk.

A very active press in Bangladesh operated in relative freedom from direct government censorship. At the same time, public officials warned journalists against critical news reports in the name of protecting the image of Bangladesh. Addressing newly elected members of the Bangladesh Federal Union of Journalists in her office in April, Prime Minister Khaleda Zia called on the media to protect the country’s interest and avoid harming the national economy through their reporting, according to local media reports.

Some high-level officials also took advantage of outdated criminal defamation laws to file cases against journalists whose critical reporting affected public perceptions. Public Works Minister Mirza Abbas filed a defamation case in February against the editor and publisher of the popular Dhaka-based Bengali-language daily Prothom Alo, saying that an article claiming a disagreement between the minister and police had tarnished the minister’s image and status. Mahfuz Anam, publisher of Prothom Alo and editor of the English-language Daily Star, told CPJ that the case was one of three ongoing defamation cases against him.

In some instances, particularly in regions outside of Dhaka, official legal action against journalists was accompanied by physical threats and violence. Three journalists fled the western town of Kushtia in May fearing for their safety after local ruling party lawmaker Shahidul Islam filed extortion cases against them. Journalists from Dhaka and elsewhere traveled to the town to protest treatment of their colleagues only to be targeted themselves. At a rally in support of the press, men identified as BNP activists attacked the journalists with bricks, stones, and chairs, injuring as many as 25 without apparent police intervention. After vocal protests from Bangladeshi media organizations and international human rights organizations, including CPJ, the lawmaker apologized in July, dropping the cases against the journalists and allowing them to return to their homes.

Police continued a grim tradition of violence against the media in April, beating a sports photographer for using the wrong entrance at the opening of an Australia-Bangladesh cricket match in the southeastern city of Chittagong. The situation escalated when dozens of baton-wielding police officers brutally beat 20 journalists who were protesting the initial attack on their colleague. Several of the journalists were hospitalized, and a government committee later recommended monetary compensation for the injured reporters.

Little progress was made in solving a series of journalist murders. A disturbing pattern emerged in the cases of Shamsur Rahman, Manik Saha, Sheikh Belaluddin, and others killed for their work in recent years. Investigations moved slowly, suspects were released, and trials repeatedly postponed—all of which served to ensure near total impunity in the killings. The failure of justice indicated a lack of either political will or ability on the part of the government.

“That’s their strategy,” Mainul Islam Khan, a press advocate for the Bangladesh Center for Development, Journalism, and Communication, told CPJ. “To delay as long as possible so the drive for justice becomes weaker and people will finally forget about the verdict.”

In anticipation of the 2007 election between bitter rivals Zia, leader of the BNP, and former prime minister Sheikh Hasina of the Awami League, the issues of widespread corruption, violent crime, high rates of inflation, and poverty were brought to the forefront. Awami League leaders also blasted BNP’s coalition with the conservative Islamic Jamaat-e-Islami party, accused of having close links to banned militant Islamist groups in the country.

The presence of an organized militant network—long reported by the media despite clear risks—was belatedly acknowledged by the government with the arrests of high-profile suspects in the coordinated nationwide bombings of August 2005. Journalists were denied access to captured militants Bangla Bhai (the alias of Siddiqul Islam) and Shaikh Abdur Rahman, prompting speculation that the leaders of the recently banned groups Jagrata Muslim Janata Bangladesh and Jamaat-ul-Mujahedeen would implicate others.

A sedition case proceeded against journalist Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury, editor of the Dhaka-based tabloid Blitz, who was released on bail in 2005 after spending 17 months in prison. Choudhury was arrested in November 2003 after trying to travel to Israel for a conference organized by the Hebrew Writers Association. Bangladesh has no formal relations with Israel, and the government has made it illegal for Bangladeshi citizens to travel there. #

Bangladesh Country report written by Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz, Senior Research Associate Kristin Jones, and Program Consultant Shawn W. Crispin

For more information, contact:
Bob Dietz bdietz@cpj.org Asia Program Coordinator, Kristin Jones kjones@cpj.org Asia Program Senior Researcher, Committee to Protect Journalists, 330 Seventh Ave, 11th floor, New York, NY 10001, phone: +1-212-465-1004
www.cpj.org

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Bangladesh authority bans political, trade union, student politics, restricts provocative news

Reports UNB, Dhaka

The government has banned political and trade union activities and restricted provocative news, including talk shows, in print and on electronic media under the Emergency Powers Rules 2007.

The government has restricted processions, demonstrations, hartals, strikes, lockouts and trade union activities across the country to ensure security of the state and people, and maintain discipline in public life.

It has also banned student-teacher politics, and politics by government employees and their activities and the activities of professional bodies.

In case of violation of the restrictions, the offenders will have to suffer a maximum of five years or a minimum of two years rigorous imprisonment along with fines.

The ban has been made effective from January 12, 2007 through a gazette notification Thursday on the Emergency Powers Rules 2007 under the Emergency Powers Ordinance 2007.

The gazette notification was made public ton .

The gazette notification, however, exempted rallies, processions and functions relating to religious, social and state affairs from the restrictions.

Under the notification, the government can ban any meeting, procession, siege, demonstration, speech, statement, any harmful news or information in the interest of government, state or public security and peace.

The government can also restrict any publication or transmission of any anti-government news, editorial, post editorial, article, feature, cartoon, talk show or discussion in print or on electronic media and any mass media, including the internet.

Wall-writing has also been banned as long as the state of emergency will remain in force.

The government will be able to proscribe any newspaper, book, document, printing press or equipment of electronic media if any news or information is published or propagated violating the government order or restrictions.

The restriction has also been put on any provocative remarks or activities against the government and its programmes, drawing, cartoon or the effigy of an individual with ulterior political motive. #

Monday, January 29, 2007

Editors vow to defy media gagging rule

Editors of national newspapers, news agencies and television news channels, and senior journalists categorically told Adviser for Law and Information Barrister Mainul Hosein that they will not abide by the restrictions imposed on the media by the emergency rules.

The editors and senior journalists asked the government to immediately rescind the part of the emergency powers rules that have slammed restrictions on the print and electronic media since 25 January 2007.

The editors and journalist were up in arms against the rules in a meeting with Mainul on January 28 and asked for immediate withdrawal of the media restrictions.

During the meeting, Adviser Mainul Hosein however said the interim government did not introduce any rule or order curb press freedom, as the media and the people are the source of this government's power.

"I have explained to them [editors] that the emergency has a framework according to which we have the power but did not introduce any law curtailing press freedom," he told reporters emerging out of the meeting with the editors and senior journalists.

"The constitution itself states that the freedom of newspapers and the media can be suspended. The recent promulgation of the rules only reminds us of that fact," he said.

The editor’s delegation explained that the restrictive rules have given rise to fear and panic among journalists and staff members of the media.

In the meeting, columnist and eminent journalist ABM Musa said, "A fissure has emerged in the relationship between the government and the newspaper. After reading the law, it seems that the caretaker government no more trust the press. It has damaged the confidence that had developed over the period."

Reminding the newsmen of the chief adviser's address to the nation, Mainul said, "The order was not promulgated with the intention of curtailing press freedom."

"We are playing the role of watchdog. Our rights should not be revoked," the angry editors told the senior government officials. #

BDNews24, UNB and BSS agencies reports

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Canadian jobs beckon Bangladeshi workers

PORIMOL PALMA

For the first time, Bangladesh is expecting to send workers to Canada, a lucrative job market that ensures high salaries and workers' rights at low service charges.

Bangladesh Overseas Employment and Services Limited (BOESL), a state-owned recruiting agency, has already prepared a draft contract with a Canadian outsourcing company that was attested by the Canadian High Commission in Dhaka recently.

Once the contract is approved, BOESL can start sending workers of various technical professions, including plumbers, truck drivers, electricians and welders, within the next few months, sources in the Ministry of Expatriates' Welfare and Overseas Employment said.
A worker has to pay only 4,000 Canadian dollars or Taka 2 to 2.5 lakh (Can $ 1= Taka 58. 57) to get to Canada, while he can earn around Taka 1.5 to 2 lakh every month, a high official of the ministry pointed out while talking to The Daily Star.

"There are opportunities for the Bangladeshi workers to earn even more than that as they usually work after the scheduled working hours also," he added requesting not to be named.

The way the Canadian company approached Bangladesh shows that it has huge demands for technical professionals, he said adding, "We can earn huge remittance once we start sending workers as the salary is quite high over there. We can also train up our large number of unemployed youths to the standard preferred by the country."

The Canadian company, however, sets condition that BOESL has to bring back the workers at its own cost if they failed in medical tests or interviews conducted in the receiving country, which spells severe loss for the recruiting agency.

"We proposed that Canadian employers conduct the final interviews of workers and their medical tests in Bangladesh by the medical centres authorised by them instead of Canada," a BOESL official said adding that, in this way, there will be no case of workers' return.

"That is why we are now negotiating with the Canadian company," he said.

If necessary, BOESL, in association with the vocational training centres run by the Bureau of Manpower, Employment and Training (BMET), can provide further training to the aspirant workers required by the Canadian employers, the official said.

Though there is no official assessment on the actual condition of the labour market in Canada, it is learnt from various sources that Canada as well as other European countries are facing severe lack of workers from technical professions, he said.

According to a Canadian website 'Immigration Expert,' demand for more and more workforce is growing, fuelled by Alberta's red-hot oil economy and the construction booms in Ontario and British Columbia.

The lack of workers is made even worse by the fact that fewer Canadians than ever are joining the domestic labour force. The three provinces, the centre of Canada's economic engine, hope to use foreign workers to make up the shortage, according to the website. #

The article was first published in the Daily Star, January 28, 2007

Common Ground, Corruption, And Politicians In Bangladesh

RIPAN KUMAR BISWAS

Why people elect government in Bangladesh? First of all, it is a democracy, which means that the people rule. It is also a representative government because the people elect leaders who will represent their viewpoint when making government decisions. It is also a constitutional government because it operates according to a set of laws and principles that are outlined in a document known as the Constitution of Bangladesh.

"We're not the first to come here with government divided and uncertainty in the air. Our citizens don't much care which side of the aisle we sit on, as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done," said President George W. Bush of the United States of America in his sixth State of the Union address on Tuesday, January 23, 2007. Faced with a Democratic Congress, President Bush urged lawmakers to work with him to achieve big things for the American people.

The reason to quote the speech of the president Bush is to mention the common ground where every lawmakers feel same either Democrats or Republican. A losing/winning parliamentarian may not invite his/her fellow opposition for lunch/dinner or vice versa but he/she can respect the public opinion and keep patience and play a good constructive role. Is it too hard to act like a real gentleman/gentlewoman if he/she will not get his/her desire side of the aisle to sit on!

On Monday, October 1, 2001, Bangladesh's Awami League (AL) responded to its landslide election defeat by announcing a boycott of parliament by saying that her party would neither take oath as members of parliament nor join the parliament. When Begum Khaleda Zia, chairperson of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), was in opposition, she too boycotted parliament.

Citizen of Bangladesh may not care which side of the aisle the lawmakers sit on but the country’s politicians always care the specific side of the aisle to sit on. And the result was weak parliament without opposition.

In a recent interview with AFP, noble laureate of Bangladesh professor Dr. Muhammad Yunus said that there is no ideological thing in the country’s political leader. They are busy to grab power and make money whether they are in power or not. They hardly have time to give any attention to reform anything for public interest. For the first time, Abdul Jalil and Mannan Bhuiyan, representing the two corrupt and rival political dynasties, the AL and BNP respectively, have found a common ground to grind their axes in public.

Corruption has never been treated at the core of the priority concerns in Bangladesh. The World Bank estimates that corruption exacts a toll of 2-3% on annual GDP growth each year. The links between corruption and organized crime, terrorism, conflict, human rights abuses, environmental degradation, and poverty are now universally recognized in the country. Having brand name ‘most corrupt country’ for five consecutive years, the policymakers in Bangladesh hardly react positively as many of them are closely involved in it.

Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) raised its voice once again against the policy makers of Bangladesh on Thursday, January 25, 2007 at Dhaka Press Club for not ratifying the ‘UN Convention Against Corruption.’ As many as 83 countries out of 148 signatories have ratified the convention that was adopted on October 31, 2003 and opened for signature on December 9, 2003.

After signing the convention, Bangladesh might need to enter into a legal obligation to criminalize an array of corrupt practices, develop national institutions to prevent corrupt practices and to prosecute offenders, cooperate with other governments to recover stolen assets, and help each other, including with technical and financial assistance, to fight corruption, reduce its occurrence and reinforce integrity. And everyone in Bangladesh knows it very well that why the government didn’t sign it.

The influencing corruption always runs with high speed; no matter who is in the driving seat. Latest experience of corruption is also following its master gambler when ex-energy adviser major general (retd.) Ruhul Alam Chowdhury was issuing four licenses to unknown companies for exploration of mineral resources between late December and early this month while the country's future was looking bleak due to political turmoil.

Although, Mr. Chowdhury countered that he didn’t do anything new and his job there was a routine task, the beneficiary companies are not capable with financially, professionally, or technically to complete the awarded deal. No need to say that this hasty deal has been awarded due to the political proximity of the previous BNP alliance government.

Mentioning the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) in Bangladesh as most ‘corrupt’ organization of the previous government, adviser to the Caretaker Government Major General (retd.) Abdul Matin alleged that the ACC could not perform as per the expectations of the people. The previous government intentionally handicapped the ACC suspending Bureau of Anti-Corruption and its 13 laws, which actually made the ACC inactive.

Actually, the rules to govern the party funding need oversight, enforcement and monitoring with reliable judges or electoral authorities, and active investigative press. This will contribute to a meritocratic public service, which will resist party bias and encourage decision making in the public interest.

According to the 'Human Development in South Asia Report 2005: Human Security in South Asia' prepared by Pakistan-based Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre, released on Thursday, January 25, 2007 in Dhaka, human security in South Asia is in the stake. Past lawmakers of Bangladesh didn’t pay any attention to pave the way for strengthening human security. Weak governance institutions fail to provide the security net for the most vulnerable people and increases human insecurity.

In addition, the report indicated that 40 percent people in South Asia are suffering for food while 40 percent of South Asia's population lives below the poverty line. Committing suicide due to food in Bangladesh can be found very often but unfortunately it is not a common ground for the policymakers to raise their voice.

Lawmakers of different political parties in India always give common opinion when they talk about Kashmir issue. Bangladeshi lawmakers don’t have any common ground to react positively either for people, state, or foreign affairs. They have common ground when they need to raise their voice against Dr. Yunus, to avoid UN convention Against Corruption, or to have a quick election so that they can grab/share power quickly. #

New York, 01.26.2007

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York

Not Grameen Bank but it was else!

Dr. ABDUL MOMEN

Many people believe that the Grameen Bank initiated 'small loans' or 'micro credit financing' first in the world. Such notion is not based on fact.

The 1st Micro Credit Summit that was held in Washington D.C. on February 2-4, 1997 at the behest of Professor Dr. Mohammed Yunus [co-chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Queen Sophia of Sweden, 1st Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton et al], published a number of reports that show that a number of organizations across the globe were practicing micro credit financing much before that of the Grameen Bank in 1976 [Grameen Bank was established in 1982 and a Micro Credit Bank was established in Columbia as early as 1962. That extended loans to over 600,000 borrowers].

For example, 'Heifer Project International' of Little Rock, Arizona, USA was distributing micro loans to over 10,000 people as early as 1944. The 'Opportunity International of Illinois (USA) paid micro credit loans to over 100,000 borrowers as early as 1971. The 'World Council of Credit Unions (WCCU) of Washington DC (USA) paid small loans without collateral to over 2 million borrowers as early as 1971. The CRS of Baltimore, Maryland (USA) provided small loans without collateral to over 150,000 borrowers prior to 1960. The ACCION International of Massachusetts also paid micro credit loans to nearly 300,000 borrowers as early as 1973. The CHF of Maryland (USA) gave small loans to over 2,500 borrowers without collateral in 1952.

COFAC of Uruguay made micro credit loans without collateral to over 99,000 borrowers as early as 1964. Such micro credit was even being practiced in poor country like Haiti by 'MPP Haiti ' as early as 1976. The ‘Fondo Ecuatorinao Progressio' of Ecuador paid micro loans in 1971. Even an NGO titled "Bina Swadaya' of Indonesia started giving micro loans in 1970. There have been few NGOs in India like the Action AID India (Karnataka), LAMP (Calcutta), Ryan Foundation (Madras) that started giving micro loans in late 1970s or early 1980s. Even in Bangladesh the 1st organization that extended micro credit loans is the BRAC and it started its 1st loans as early as 1974 followed by the Grameen Bank in 1976 and the Swanirvar Bangladesh in 1979. Besides this, the Micro Credit Summit publications listed over 50 organizations in Africa, Europe, North America, Asia and Latin America that extended micro loans to small borrowers before or during 1970s.

Many of these early pioneers also extended their loans mostly to women, the average proportion of women borrowers varied between 50% and 65%. However, the greatness or specialty of the Grameen Bank among many are (1) over 90% women borrowers, (2) introduction of peer pressure of group of 5, (3) efficient loan recovery, (4) successful introduction of it in a wider framework, (5) linking it to formal banking system and especially to many corporate and international leaders like Citicorp, Monsanto Fund, Charles Stewart, RESULTS Fund, the World Bank, the UN, (6) an effective vehicle of poverty alleviation and, most importantly, (7) women empowerment and (8) coverage is over 6.6 million borrowers over a short period of 30 years.

The Colombian Micro Credit Bank (estd. 1962) could provide loans only to 600,000 borrowers over 20 years, the Grameen Bank (estd. 1982) did 10 times more during the same time frame. More startling, Dr. Yunus' program is based on a sound goal of achieving poverty alleviation from the entire globe while their's was simply to help their fellow human being to have a comfortable life, away from poverty. His goal of reaching 800 million families throughout the world by 2015 appears to be sound and achievable.He has 4 different types of loan programs---- if I correctly remember from 0% to 22% interest. For the most vulnerable, for example, the beggars get interest free loans. Unless he charges interest, his program cannot sustain and he cannot engage enough agents for effective servicing and loan recovery of nearly 99%. This sharply contrast with that of the nation's commercial banks whose recovery rate is barely 50% and whose official interest rate could be 14% (through 18%) but given 'bakshish' effective rate is nearly 22%. There is no practice of corruption in the case of Grameen loans unlike the country's commercial banks. Secondly, the borrowers could be share holders.

The BRAC (or Micro Credit Bank of Columbia) might have started it early but the focus, concentration and spread of the Grameen Bank micro credit loans programs evolutionalised the micro credit lending in Bangladesh and the world over. He rightfully deserves commendation. #

Abdul Momen is a professor of Management and Economics and lives in Boston, USA

CPJ welcomes government pledge to withdraw restrictions



New York, January 29, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists released the following statement today in response to media reports that Bangladesh’s interim government is reconsidering proposed guidelines for the media that would threaten journalists who violate the new rules with a maximum of five years and a minimum of two years in jail, plus fines. The government is also calling for meetings with media representatives, according to local news reports.

“We welcome the government’s assurances that it will not impose the drastic restrictions on the media that were to go into effect on January 26, but we will continue to monitor developments in Bangladesh closely,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “We encourage the interim government to do everything in its power to ensure that Bangladeshi journalists are free to pursue their work during this important period in the country’s history,” #


CPJ urges Bangladesh to rescind emergency media rules

New York, January 26, 2007
The Committee to Protect Journalists is greatly concerned about new regulations imposed by the Bangladeshi interim government that severely restrict news reporting. The Emergency Powers Rules of 2007, announced on Thursday, restrict press coverage of political news and set penalties of up to five years in prison for violations.

The new rules aim at a wide range of political activities. Those dealing specifically with media allow the government to ban or censor print and broadcast news about rallies and other political activities that it deems “provocative or harmful.” Under the rules, the government can seize printed material and confiscate printing presses and broadcast equipment. The government also has power under the regulations to censor or block news transmitted in any form.

“These rules give authorities sweeping powers of censorship that will deprive Bangladeshi citizens of independent information at this critical time of political upheaval,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “We call on the interim government to rescind these repressive rules immediately.”

Bangladesh has been embroiled in political turmoil since October, when Prime Minister Khaleda Zia’s administration came to an end in the run-up to constitutionally mandated elections. Voting had been scheduled for this week but was postponed when opposition parties protested irregularities. President Iajuddin Ahmed stepped down as leader of the caretaker government and declared a state of emergency on January 11, following bitter clashes between supporters of the two major rival parties.

The regulations took effect today and will remain in force until the government lifts the state of emergency, according to Thursday’s announcement.

CPJ is a New York–based, independent, nonprofit organization that works to safeguard press freedom worldwide. For more information, visit www.cpj.org.

Bob Dietz bdietz@cpj.org
Asia Program Coordinator
Kristin Jones kjones@cpj.org
Asia Program Senior Researcher
Committee to Protect Journalists
330 Seventh Ave, 11th floor
New York, NY 10001
+1 212 465 1004
www.cpj.org

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Bangladesh security forces accused of extra-judicial killings, illegal arrests

Human Rights Watch accused Bangladesh security forces of a series of unlawful killings and arbitrary arrests under a state of emergency and called on authorities to halt the abuses.

The New York-based group called on officials to investigate the deaths and bring those responsible to justice, warning that the country's international image would suffer if nothing was done.

Quoting local rights groups, it said "security forces are implicated in a spate of extrajudicial killings since a state of emergency was declared in the country on January 11" to end weeks of political unrest.

"The killings have been attributed to members of the army, the police, and the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism force," it added.

Bangladesh's leading human rights group, the Law and Mediation Center, has said at least five people have been killed in army custody and 22,000 arrested since then.

"A state of emergency cannot justify killings by the security forces," Brad Adams, director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said in the statement.

"The government should put a quick stop to these abuses."

The arrests follow a nationwide crackdown on criminals and "corruptionists" designed to pave the way for free and fair elections.

"It's a terrible situation. We have asked the government to stop it or at least follow transparency and due legal process in these arbitrary arrests," said Sultana Kamal, executive director of the Law and Mediation Center.

Another human rights group, Odhikar, said as many as 19 people were killed in the first ten days of the emergency.

Odhikar said the deaths were either in custody from torture or in what the security forces attributed to "crossfire" with "criminals" during arrest.

The state of emergency was imposed at the same time as elections scheduled for January 22 were postponed after months of political unrest and violence on the streets.

Bangladesh is now being governed by a caretaker government which is widely seen as backed by the military.

Killings in custody have been a major human rights issue in Bangladesh. During the last large-scale military deployment in 2002, at least 50 people reportedly died in army custody in unclear circumstances.

No military personnel are known to have been held criminally responsible for any of the deaths.

The Human Rights Watch called for an independent inquiry into allegations of extrajudicial killings.

"The government's first step must be to issue a direct order not to kill suspects in custody," Adams said, and urged the government to investigate the deaths and follow due legal process to make arrests.

"The government should then aggressively investigate and hold all those who violated the law accountable, or its reputation inside Bangladesh and abroad will suffer," he said.

"Arrests must be carried out in accordance with the law and due process, not by rounding up huge numbers of people who may or may not have broken the law," he added.

Human Rights Watch said deaths in custody could damage Bangladesh's global image as a major contributor to UN peacekeeping forces.

"Extrajudicial killings by Bangladesh's security forces put the country's reputation as a respectable contributor to UN peacekeeping forces at risk," Adams said.

As of January 1, Bangladesh was contributing 9,681 military and police to UN peacekeeping operations, numbers second only to Pakistan. #

Reports: Agency French Press (AFP), Dhaka, Fri Jan 26, 2007

Reuters add from Dhaka:
Bangladesh's interim administration said on 25 January it was investigating allegations that nearly 20 people among hundreds arrested recently for criminal activities or in connection with pre-election violence had died in police custody. The Daily Star newspaper, quoting a human rights group, said on Wednesday that at least 19 people had been killed in custody in last 10 days.

Police say around 3,000 people -- including activists and lower officials of major political parties -- have been arrested in the last week alone.

They have admitted a number of "criminals" linked to political parties have died in custody, but blame the deaths on natural causes such as heart failure or say they were shot during escape attempts.

"Several died in custody due to heart failure or when they came in crossfire," said a police officer who asked not to be named.

Stung by the criticism, the interim administration has promised an investigation.

"The administration has taken the custodial deaths seriously and is investigating the incidents," Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, adviser in-charge of the Foreign Affairs ministry told a news conference.

The interim government, led by Fakhruddin Ahmed, took charge on Jan. 12 tasked with reforming the electoral system and holding national polls as soon as possible. #

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Blaming politicians alone is shirking responsibility

SHAMERAN ABED

Now that the democratic process has been pushed aside and a military-backed government is in place, the country is in the danger of being depoliticised in the name of being depolarised. There is no doubt that unhealthy polarisation of society along party lines needs to be reversed, yet this cannot be done by discrediting the political process altogether.

DR MUHAMMAD Yunus told a foreign news agency last week that the people of this country ‘are not just happy, they are jubilant’ at the declaration of the state of emergency. It is entirely possible that the Nobel laureate gave away to some exaggeration, but there is no doubt that he was largely on the ball with his observation. After months of fear and anxiety, the people rightly feel a sense of relief and respite at the opportunity to go about their lives without interruption. The country has returned to near-normalcy from near-anarchy, and the man on the street couldn’t be faulted if he was jubilant at the turn of events.

However, there is a clear issue of irresponsibility when civil society and the media also partake in that jubilation. That the declaration of a state of emergency was necessary to bring stability back to the country cannot be denied, but the fact that sixteen years after our return to democracy, we have had to install a military-backed interim government to sort out the mess left by our political parties should be a cause for great despair, not jubilation.

Dr Yunus, in his interview, also spoke of the state of our politics and of our political parties only being interested in ‘power, power to make money’. Once again, he has provided a mostly accurate portrayal, even though he has been highly criticised over the weekend by all the major parties. Indeed these parties are to blame for the situation that exists in our country today. Over a period of sixteen years, they have not only provided pitiful governance, they have combined to destroy all the institutions of the state from the judiciary to the civil service. Instead of strengthening the pillars on which a functioning democracy could stand, they have systematically demolished those pillars to serve their partisan interests. Our major political parties are collectively responsible for this state of emergency, for this isn’t a result of what has taken place over the last two and a half months; rather this is the outcome of sixteen years of failure. The parties can criticise Dr Yunus for his generalizations, but they cannot shed the responsibility for the decay of our political process.

One can, therefore, understand that the people are disappointed and feel betrayed by the political parties; yet, the fault is not of the political parties alone. Civil society and the media are also responsible for the disintegration of our democratic order. They are supposed to act as pressure groups on the political parties to uphold certain democratic principles. Unfortunately, civil society and the media in our country have not only failed in that endeavour but also legitimised, at different times, the efforts of our political parties to tear apart the fabric of our democratic polity.

In any open and democratic society, it is only desirable that civil society and the media play an active part in the political process. As institutions, they are expected to be political. In our country unfortunately, civil society and the media have become partisan. They have allowed themselves to be infiltrated by the political parties and have become divided along party lines. Therefore, instead of upholding the democratic aspirations of the people, they have become party to the power struggle of our political parties. Civil society and the media have made countless demands on the previous caretaker government led by Iajuddin, including calling for his resignation. Yet how many times over the last sixteen years have they demanded the resignation of the prime minister or a minister for their failures? When have these upholders of our democratic principles demanded that the political parties become internally democratic? Why is it that they only talk of electoral reform when one or the other of the parties, typically while in opposition and close to election time, bring up these issues and never otherwise? When did civil society last demand the strengthening of local government to ensure proper service delivery to the people? Instead, those who constitute civil society — doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, artists and commentators — have signed up to the agenda of one or the other of the parties and spend their time promoting that agenda.

Therefore, the failure of our political parties is also a failure of society itself. If civil society and the media had played a positive role to keep our political parties honest, instead of surrendering themselves as tools for the politicians to play with and use to their advantage, our country would not have found itself in its present position. Now, having not only allowed but aided in the process of disintegration, which has resulted in this state of emergency, it is highly regrettable that civil society and the media can shamelessly support this outcome. In the days following the declaration of the state of emergency, a few of the most prominent national dailies in this country carried front page pieces in which they protested the government’s confused attempts at controlling the media, yet found no time or column space to protest against the suspension of the fundamental rights of the people. Their message was clear: we support the state of emergency and the suspension of fundamental rights as long as we, the media, can work without interference. That, it seems, is the extent of our media’s commitment to creating an open and democratic society.

Now that the democratic process has been pushed aside and a military-backed government is in place, the country is in the danger of being depoliticised in the name of being depolarised. There is no doubt that unhealthy polarisation of society along party lines needs to be reversed, yet this cannot be done by discrediting the political process altogether. We may yet be unsure of how long this interim government intends to stay, but we cannot be in any doubt that the country will have to sooner or later be given back to our political parties to run. Given that reality, would it not make much more sense for civil society and the media to work towards changing the ways in which these parties operate, rather than dismissing these parties and hailing a government which is temporary and can only deliver so much? At the end of the day, it is only through the political process that the people of this country will have their demands met and only through that process can any reforms brought about in the system by an interim government be sustained.

Therefore, it is very disheartening to see that certain prominent civil society members and a section of the media are providing such overt and unqualified support to this interim government, and are feeling jubilant at the way that things have come to pass, instead of expressing regret at their sheer failure in preventing this scenario. Now, instead of demanding the earliest return to the democratic process so that the wrongs of the last sixteen years can be put right, civil society and the media are asking for this unelected interim government to stay on for as long as it wishes.

One must not forget that even in our country an elected government is accountable to a certain extent, not just every five years when they go to polls but on a regular basis when elected representatives have to give answers to their constituents. This military-backed government does not even have that level of accountability. When this government, which is far removed from the masses and not dependent on their mandate, breaks down illegal structures and evicts hawkers from the city, who is there to question its motive? If this government starts bulldozing slums, who will ask what the government is doing to provide alternative housing to those who have been displaced? For those who feel jubilant that a ‘civil war’ has been averted because of this state of emergency, it will be a rude awakening if and when the masses may be pushed into such a corner that it ultimately has to rise to recapture power and hand it back to their political representatives. #

Republished from The New Age, Dhaka, Bangladesh 22 January 2007

The army, not the politicians, now runs Bangladesh

The coup that dare not speak its name

WHEN Iajuddin Ahmed, Bangladesh's president, declared an army-backed state of emergency on January 11th and cancelled the election due on January 22nd, neither he nor the foreign governments quietly cheering him on used the word “coup”. Yet that is what it looks like. The army, in the tradition of “guardian coups” from Fiji to Thailand, has stepped in with the usual list of apparently noble goals. The interim government it is backing will enable credible elections, clean up the country's extremely politicised civil service, fight corruption, fix the country's power crisis and keep food prices in check—and then return to the barracks.

The president stood down as head of the caretaker government that had been supposed to oversee the elections. He was replaced by Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former central-bank governor and World Bank official. The technocratic administration he heads has so far sent the right signals. A drive against corruption—in which Bangladesh regularly nears the top of world league tables—is under way. The national-security chief, the top civil servant in the power ministry and the attorney-general have all been ousted. A start has been made in separating the judiciary from the executive.

But restoring democracy remains a tall order. The political system has collapsed. The army insisted the president step in before the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), which headed a coalition government for the past five years, could rig the election and secure itself another term. Delaying the vote averted a possible bloodbath. Allegations of election-rigging levelled by an alliance led by the other big party, the Awami League, had led to weeks of often violent protests and strikes. Their charges were, in effect, backed by foreign observers. Both the European Union and the UN withdrew their support for the election. The UN also warned the army against partisan intervention in politics, adding that this might jeopardise its lucrative role in UN peacekeeping operations. This threat helped sever an alliance between the army and the BNP.

The BNP's leader, the previous prime minister, Khaleda Zia, is reported to have been taken aback by the state of emergency and disappointed in the generals. But the BNP is unlikely to go quietly, raising fears that the administration might be forced to make fuller use of its wide-ranging emergency powers, which it has so far used with restraint.

Unless something extraordinary happens to make the parties behave, there will be no return soon to two-party politics. It will take time to fix a voter list bloated with millions of extra names, to issue voter-identity cards, to set up a new independent election commission, and to purge the bureaucracy. It seems unachievable before the July monsoon, which pushes polls back to the final quarter of 2007. Indeed, what would be the fourth electoral battle between Mrs Zia and the League's Sheikh Hasina Wajed may never happen.

Arguing in favour of the state of emergency, Bangladesh's largest-selling newspaper, Prothom Alo, has exposed the practice of parties' auctioning off parliamentary seats for money. Matiur Rahman, the editor, also alleges that both big parties entered a bidding war to lure the Jatiya Party of the former dictator, Hossain Mohammad Ershad, into their alliance. Jatiya has asked the army to shut the paper down.

Although the state of emergency has supporters even among some liberal democrats, it is a high-stakes gamble. Authoritarian rule is unlikely to appeal for long, however fed up voters are with the two big parties and their mutually-loathing leaders. The main beneficiary from the failure of mainstream politics is an extremist Islamist fringe.

Internationally, the stakes are highest for neighbouring India. It accuses Bangladesh of harbouring insurgent groups from its north-east, and is home, claim politicians, to some 20m Bangladeshi migrants. By 2050 Bangladesh, only twice as big as Ireland, will have about 250m people. In the short term the only voting on offer to Bangladesh's people, half of whom live in abject poverty, is with their feet. #

Republished from The Economist print edition, Jan 18th 2007, DHAKA

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The two death row inmates should be heard before execution

A.H. JAFFOR ULLAH

We have been reading about the possible execution of the two Islamic terrorists in the news media wherefrom we learned that both of the condemn men will walk the gallows sometime in February 2007. The police framed them in a case involving the murder of two judges in Jhalokati in Southern part of Bangladesh.

The Islamists who killed the judges were disciples of Shaikh Abdur Rahman and Siddiqul Islam aka Bangla Bhai. They were the leaders of banned political organization, Jamatul Mujahedeen Bangladesh (JMB). The two leaders did not kill the judges with their hand but their followers did the killing. In the trial, government lawyer said that the judges were murdered based on the call made by the two leaders of JMB.

Both Shaikh Abdur Rahman and Siddiqul Islam were evading their arrest. In March 2006 the police finally caught up with him one in Sylhet town and the other in Muktagacha near Mymensingh town. Khaleda Zia Administration, who was at the helms then, took the heat from press for setting the stage for their dramatic arrests that were televised. Immediately after their arrests the two Islamists were railroaded to gallows by the judiciary. According to news published in Dhaka's newspapers, the Islamists are not housed in a jail cell but they live in a house in Dhaka's northern suburb.

The condemn men expressed their interest to talk to news media immediately after their arrests. However, Khaleda Zia Administration made sure that the men remain far away from newspaper men and reticent.

Now that Khaleda Zia Administration is all but history, the Caretaker government (CG) who are at the helm should grant the death row inmates to talk to the news media. What the government is going to lose?

It was reported in news media in 2004 that the JMB leadership was involved with a handful of BNP MPs from northwestern district of Bangladesh. We also saw photos taken in the hey days of Islamists in 2004 when they were trotting the streets of Rajshahi, Noagaon, Atrai, and few other rural towns under police protection. In those days, the BNP leadership said publicly that JMB terrorists were nowhere to be found and they were the wildest imagination of the press. Buckled under pressure when JMB goons blasted nearly 400 homemade crude bombs in all the districts in August 11, 2004, did the government admit the existence of JMB?

Now that the two condemn men are about to walk the gallows, it is the government's last chance to unearth the nexus between the virulent Islamists belonging to JMB and the ex-MPs from Rajshahi, Bogra, and nearby places.

What is the pressing reason for interviewing the two Islamists? In my opinion, there are plenty of reasons. For one, who funded the operations of JMB terrorists? Did they receive any protection from any political party? The two men who are about to walk the gallows may give more secret out than one could envisioned. How many different operation they ran? Did they try to kill liberal secularist? Mind you, Prof. Humayun Azad was brutally attacked in February 2003 when the nation was under the grip of Islamic violence. In April 2001 terrorists attacked innocent and peaceful civilians as they participate in Pohela Baishakh (Bangla New Year) celebration. Also, people would like to know whether the Islamist goons attacked multiple movie theaters on Eid Day in Mymensingh in 2002.

The two death row inmates are very eager to talk now. Therefore, the government should allow the men to talk. For the sake of posterity the tell all session should be both audio and video recorded. A group of newspaper reporters may field questions before them. It will be helpful if the government do not allow any police or officials to be present in the session. My take on this is if a genial environment is produced, the two Islamists may spill the beans. Therefore, for the greater good of the society, the two Islamists awaiting execution should be allowed to talk freely before the press. If the Caretaker government is sincere about abolishing criminal activities and terrorism from the land, then, they should be dead serious about recording the tell all session of the two Islamists.

What are we waiting for? Let the Islamists not take any secrets to their grave. The government of Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed which is bent on wiping out crime from the society may inaugurate our Bangla version of glasnost (emphasizing candor with regard to discussion of social problems and shortcomings) with the taping of two Islamists who are gallows-bound. Let us hear what they have to say.
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Dr. A.H. Jaffor Ullah, a researcher and columnist, writes from New Orleans, USA

Bangladesh generals plan anti-corruption drive

JO JOHNSON with TOM FELIX JOEHNK

Five days after Bangladesh's president, at the insistence of the army, declared a state of emergency, resigned his post as head of the caretaker government and cancelled the elections that were due to be held next Monday, the full implications of the latest twist in Bangladesh's political drama are only just becoming clear. Few now have any doubt that the country is set for a lengthy period of military-backed technocratic rule.

Fakhruddin Ahmed, a former World Bank official and ex-central bank governor summoned by the generals on Friday to replace President Iajuddin Ahmed as de facto prime minister, is now framing rules to determine how authoritarian this regime will be. Diplomats say the army charged him with executing a five-point agenda that the generals presented to the president in a tense three-hour meeting the previous day.

No one yet knows how long this period of suspended democracy will last. Under the constitution, there is no time limit to Mr Ahmed's technocratic rule, as the emergency was declared when parliament had already been dissolved. Donor countries say the answer depends on how sweeping are the changes that the military now plans to impose.

Diplomats say the generals' unpublished five-point agenda consists of a drive to clean up the country's biased electoral machinery; a pledge to improve governance in the civil service; an anti-corruption drive that would cleanse the nation's politics; the depoliticisation of the judiciary; and reform of the crippled power sector.

Western diplomats make clear they have no qualms in welcoming a period of military-backed technocratic rule. Had rigged elections gone ahead on January 22, in the face of a boycott by the Awami League opposition party, most expected a bloodbath. They now want the military-backed caretaker government to clean house, but to do so as fast as possible.

"The main goal was to stop the election because it could have led to civil war," says one. "No one regrets what has happened. The army is now the power behind the scenes and if it's for 18 months, it's for 18 months. But we could well have opened a can of worms that ends up with something far worse in the form of a lengthy period of military rule. We need a shake-up, but it must be kept within reasonable bounds."

With its credibility now on the line, many believe the military will seek deep-seated reform and that this could take a year or more. At a minimum, this will include updating the voters' list, providing ID cards to 90m voters, and establishing a fully-autonomous election commission that would do away with the flawed system of charging caretaker governments withoverseeing elections.

The real question, however, is whether the army is serious about rooting out the corruption that has eroded virtually all public trust in Bangladeshi politicians. Unless the army gives real teeth to an anti-corruption commission capable of weeding out venal candidates, observers say all the other changes to the mechanics of the electoral machinery may prove worthless.

Most political analysts say that any genuine crackdown on corruption would have to start with the clique of business people around Tarique Rahman, son of outgoing prime minister Khaleda Zia, leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist party. Such a move would be likely to provoke such fierce protests from the BNP that it could lead to full martial law.

To be seen to be even-handed in its treatment of Bangladesh's two feuding parties, the army might consider what is called the 'Musharraf option'. Just as General Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, exiled Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, leaders of Pakistan's two largest political parties after his 1999 bloodless coup, so might martial law lead to the expulsion of Mrs Zia and Sheikh Hasina, leader of the Awami League.

"I don't discount the possibility that the generals ask the two ladies to take a holiday," one Awami League leader said. "Pakistan is certainly a model that could be followed here, even if they have far deeper grass-roots support than Benazir and Nawaz."

If the military decided to go after corruption in the former ruling party, they would have to go after the other party too, he said.

Either way, western diplomats view the emergence of a political vacuum in the world's fourth most populous Muslim country with alarm. A nation of 140m people, Bangladesh has been a focus of international efforts to engage with "moderate Islam".

Few are convinced that decapitating the two main political parties will help arrest the inroads being made by Islamist parties and associated terrorist groups. #

The article was first published in the Financial Times, London on 16 January 2007

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Bangladesh: Inching Back from the Precipice

AJAI SAHNI

Bangladesh’s disorders were set to intensify exponentially, when the Awami League (AL) led ‘grand alliance’ of 14 parties announced on January 3, 2007, that it would "boycott and resist" the national elections then scheduled for January 22, 2007. The AL had been protesting the systematic subversion of the country’s bureaucracy and electoral system by the Bangladesh National Party (BNP) led Government over years. The AL claimed that the BNP-led regime had packed the Election Commission and various administrative posts that would be directly connected with the conduct of elections, with its own sympathisers; that it had rigged the voters’ lists, excluding large numbers of valid voters known to be unsympathetic to the BNP and its alliance partners, and packed it with fraudulent voter identities, which were expected to be cast en masse by sympathisers, while hand-picked election officers looked the other way.

Announcing the decision to ‘boycott and resist’ the elections, Sheikh Hasina, the AL President, had declared on January 3, 2007, that an atmosphere conducive to a fair election had yet to come to existence although only 19 days remained; instead of a neutral Caretaker Government, President Iajuddin Ahmed had established "a shadow government of BNP-Jamaat" sympathisers; that a flawless voters’ list safeguarding the people's right to universal franchise was yet to be prepared; and the administration still remains politicised. She added, further,

“Assuming the office of Chief Adviser to the Caretaker Government illegally, Iajuddin Ahmed wants to hold an election without a valid voter list. A free and fair election is not possible with the current voter list... it was prepared only to hold an election designed in line with the blueprint provided by BNP-Jamaat alliance. We can't give legitimacy to such an election, and for this, we have decided not to participate in a stage-managed election.”

A series of intensive agitation programmes including blockades, hartals (shut downs) and ‘besiege programmes’ were announced and initiated. These compounded the massive campaign of nationwide street demonstrations and unrest that had been ongoing since October 27, 2006, in the wake of wrangling over the candidate for Chief Advisor of the Caretaker Government, at which point the President, Iajuddin Ahmed, decided to take over the post himself in a move that was widely regarded as unconstitutional. Bloody street battles followed, and were the grounds that President Ahmed used to call out the Army on December 8, 2006. However, following the wide criticism of the move, Ahmed ordered the Armed forces to remain on 'stand by' and not to actively engage in law enforcement. This had little impact on the intensity of protests and the grand alliance’s determination to block the Elections. On January 10, Sheikh Hasina announced the further intensification of the protest campaign from January 14, including a non-stop siege of the Bangabhaban [the Presidential Palace], a four-day blockade and a two-day hartal, raising the spectre of utter collapse.

It was at this point that international players involved in the election process simply declared that credible polls were no longer a possibility. International organisations and donor agencies had long been mounting pressure on the Caretaker Government to resolve the crisis. On January 11, 2007, however, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared that the political crisis in Bangladesh had "severely jeopardised the legitimacy" of the polls, and UN, European Union (EU) and the Commonwealth suspended their ‘election observation missions’ (EOM) in Bangladesh. The EU Deputy Chief Observer, Graham Elson, justified the decision to suspend the EOM on the grounds of "the unfortunate circumstances which are presently governing the holding of the parliamentary elections. It is not the business of observer teams to scrutinise elections whose credibility falls short of international standards." Elson specifically pointed to the lack of transparency, a "contentious" voter list and the lack of impartiality in the Administration.

Cornered, President Ahmed resigned from the post of Chief Advisor to the Caretaker Government and simultaneously declared a state of Emergency, within hours of the announcements regarding the withdrawal of the EOMs. This was the first time that the country was brought under Emergency provisions since General H.M. Ershad declared a state of Emergency on November 27, 1990, which remained in effect till December 6, 1990, the day Ershad resigned from presidency following a mass upsurge.

Crucially, President Ahmed conceded the AL allegations that there had been ‘flaws’ in the process of ‘updating’ the voters’ list and that it was ‘imperative to prepare a flawless voters list to hold a free and fair election’.

Within a day, a consensual candidate, Dr. Fakhruddin Ahmed, former Governor of the Bangladesh Bank, was sworn in as Chief Advisor in a ceremony prominently attended by Sheikh Hasina and her grand alliance partners. The BNP President, Begum Khaleda Zia, however, was notably absent from the ceremony. A new council of ministers is shortly to be charged with creating the conditions for ‘free and fair polls’ in which all parties can participate.

These quick developments appear, at least temporarily, to have dissipated the enormous tensions that had built up over the preceding months of mass political mobilisation and demonstrations in which an estimated 45 persons lost their lives. Nevertheless, the deficit of trust between the AL grand alliance and the President, as well as a powerful section of the Administration that is seen to be sympathetic to the BNP, persists. To the extent that Ahmed was seen as a party to the BNP conspiracy to rig elections, it will take much more than a consensual change in the leadership of the Caretaker Government to restore faith. Significantly, President Ahmed remains the Supreme Commander of the Bangladesh Armed Forces, and the Army retains the mandate conferred on it on December 8, 2006. A repressive order of censorship is also in place, which bans independent news channels from broadcasting their own news and current affairs programmes, and places significant constraints on the print media. None of these circumstances can contribute to an atmosphere conducive to a peaceful and fair electoral process.

Worse, the BNP has been winded by what it will certainly see as a tremendous defeat for its strategy to recapture power. Conversely, the AL alliance will be exhilarated by the spectacle of the humiliation it has inflicted on its enemies. As the processes of electoral roll revision and the removal of entrenched officials from the echelons of the administration commence, these passions will come to a head, unless there is extraordinarily sensitive handling of each of the issues listed in the AL’s 11-point demands submitted to the Caretaker Government on October 30, 2006. But each step in this direction would be a provocation for the BNP alliance, which had been quick to dismiss the demands as ‘frivolous’.

Crucially, the present electoral process is also a battle for the survival and consolidation of the BNP’s Islamist partners, including the Jamaat-e-Islami and the Islami Oikya Jote, who have, in the past, significantly benefited from the country’s polarized politics, and from all manifestations of disorder.

Unless an extraordinarily unlikely rapprochement occurs between the AL and BNP leadership – particularly between the irreconcilable Begums, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina – the present interregnum of relative peace promises to be no more than ephemeral. Once the election processes gather force again, an exacerbation of the unrelenting political frictions in Bangladesh can once again be expected to come into play. #

Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi, India

Bangladesh Mourns for Freedom of Press

RIPAN KUMAR BISWAS

In 399 BC an Athenian jury convicted Socrates, then age 70, on two counts: rejecting the gods of the city and corrupting the young. Both of these charges involved solely things he said, not any physical actions.

Socrates mocked the Greek gods as silly and immoral. He taught that a good life, as a human, must be based not on imaginary gods but instead on inner virtues such as true knowledge, honesty, justice, and personal integrity. The real crux of the charge, however, was not his bad-mouthing the gods (many writers for decades had laughed at the Greek gods) but rather his endless attacks against the entire democratic culture as symbolized by the city gods of Athens.

Socrates speaks to jury at his trial: 'If you offered to let me off this time on condition I am not any longer to speak my mind... I should say to you, "Men of Athens, I shall obey the Gods rather than you."' In history's first democracy renowned for freedom of speech, Socrates was convicted and executed for exercising it.

Obviously, people of Bangladesh or the press didn’t do or say anything like Socrates but both of them will have to be apart from each other.

Everybody shocked and thundered to hear the order from the Bangladeshi Authority that private broadcast outlets suspend news programs and print outlets halt critical news coverage related to state during a state of emergency announced on January 11, 2007.

The state of emergency raised concern in a country with a history of military rule. Two presidents had been slain and 19 other coup attempts failed in Bangladesh since it gained independence from Pakistan in 1971.

The first amendment of the US Bill of Rights guarantees four freedoms: of religion, speech, the press, and the right to assemble. The first 10 amendments to the US Constitution are collectively known as the Bill of Right. According to the article 35(b), Part-III of the constitution of Bangladesh, freedom of the press is guaranteed. Freedom of press in any country is not only a right to be guaranteed but also a way to march for a civilized society.

Democracy fails under a variety of conditions and one of the major conditions occurs when people don't have the ability to get the kind of information they need to make up their mind.

Media is the term used to denote, as a class, that section of the media specifically conceived and designed to reach a very large audience (typically at least as large as the whole population of a nation state). It’s essential that at this very sensitive moment Bangladeshi citizens have unfettered access to information.

The challenge of pluralism in Bangladesh is enormous and the gap between the fundamental rights promised in the country’s constitution and the banality of freedom of speech is now the latest experience in Bangladesh.

There is no doubt to say that only and one achievement of democracy in Bangladesh is its press. It was the press which figured out the Islamic militants in Bangladesh. Although journalists are targeted by Islamist and Maoist groups, as well as officials and politicians, Bangladesh feels proud of its media worker and the world rightfully praises and respects Bangladesh for their encouragement and professionalism.

With the restoration of democratic order from a movement of the autocratic era of the former president General H.M Ershad, press in Bangladesh is serving its level best to continue the democratic practices in the country.

There are more than one thousand newspapers and periodicals including 286 dailies in the country, which is much higher than the corresponding figures of 1990. Total circulation of newspapers and periodicals exceeds 2 million. Both Bangla and English language dailies and periodicals are read widely. In addition, country’s eight private television stations, several radio stations, and state-run televisions and radio stations are carrying country’s democratic journey.

This history of media is organized around four generations: memory and speech, print and film, telephone and television, and multimedia and internet. The last and latest includes web which is merely accessible throughout the world. So it’s not easy to shut down the mouth either press or people of Bangladesh.

Although the whole nation is plunged into an abyss of concern, instability, and uncertainty, the state of emergency shouldn’t suspend the fundamental rights of citizens. As president of the people’s republic of Bangladesh professor Iajuddin Ahmed emphasized the country’s democracy and constitution, freedom of speech should be protected as prerequisite of democracy.

We expect that the authorities in Bangladesh will withdraw the restrictions on the media, to respect the right of journalists to report fully and freely, and to ensure citizens’ rights to independent information. #

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York. Ripan.Biswas@yahoo.com

Monday, January 15, 2007

Political Turmoil in Bangladesh

MAHFUZ R. CHOWDHURY

Bangladesh is currently experiencing grave political turmoil. Yesterday, the interim President Iajuddin Ahmed declared a state of emergency and a delay to scheduled national elections. Since November, dozens have died in associated riots. However, like its cyclones, this is not a new phenomenon - it recurs every five years during election season. The main cause: Politics in Bangladesh is influenced not by the free will of the people, but by the manipulation of elections through money and muscle.

The present drama is being played out by the two most powerful parties in the country: the Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). Both have held power at one time or another, and neither has a clean record with respect to fair elections or corruption. But, under the BNP's longer tenure, opportunities for corruption have reached new heights. The world is not unaware of the extent. Transparency International's "Corruption Perceptions Index," the global standard, has ranked Bangladesh the most corrupt country in the world five consecutive times since 2000.

In this environment, the opposition party AL is seeking to reproduce its loss-turned-victory in the elections of 1996. At the time, AL was able to delegitimize the results of that year's first election through protests and orchestrate a second election that led to its assumption of power. This year, AL has already taken the first step by refusing to participate in the upcoming elections, claiming ballot rigging and voter roll fraud. The government has acted harshly in response, yet fails to contain AL protestors. Since the present saga began more than two months ago, 40 people have died in riots and demonstrations, millions of dollars of property has been damaged and economic activities have come to a screeching halt. There is no sign that the conflict is going to end anytime soon.

Perhaps even more unfortunate is the overall cycle in which the country is locked, marked by abrupt, undemocratic changes. For example, neither of the parties' two leaders--Khaleda Zia, Prime Minister and Leader of BNP and Sheikh Hasina, leader of the opposition Awami League party--came into power by her own right. Both were virtually inducted into their present leadership positions because of their family ties to the parties' founders, who were both assassinated. Khaleda Zia is the widow to the previous BNP leader, while Sheikh Hasina is daughter to the Awami League counterpart. While the original leaders' ideals have been mostly abandoned, their intense cults of personality have endured through these two women.

Despite their significant influence, however, neither party is able to perfectly manipulate nationwide election results. That is precisely why each party is now trying to outmaneuver the other, whether through street fights or by applying police power. All this transpires before a floundering caretaker government. Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, who through alignment with the Jamaat-e-Islami fundamentalist party had formed the preceding government, has left cronies in many key posts. She thus remains influential in the supposedly impartial interim body. To counter, opposition leader Sheikh Hasina has moved to form alliances with a number of political parties, including that of a former military dictator against whom criminal cases are pending. The apparent reason for Lt. General Ershad's inclusion is that he continues to control a significant amount of ill-gotten funds, acquired during his nine years of autocratic rule.

How the present political drama in Bangladesh plays out depends entirely on who is able to exercise muscle more brazenly. Until the game is played out, the country will undoubtedly be held hostage. To break the impasse, both parties might ultimately agree to some kind of election program. But unfortunately such an exercise is not likely to end in a resolution. If the past is any indication of the future, the losing party will not accept the fairness of the election and will continue with its violent protest. The current cycle of violence, blockade, and intimidation will continue. From the perspective of many social scientists, the world might face another "failed state" unless the present vicious cycle in Bangladesh is broken.

This commentary was first published in the Washington Post on January 12, 2007

Link: http://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/needtoknow/2007/01/political_turmoil_in_banglades.html

Mahfuz R. Chowdhury is a Professor of Economics at CW Post Campus of Long Island University. (Special thanks to Adnan Ahmad at John Hopkins University)

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

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

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Perfect Gift of Secularism in Bangladesh

RIPAN KUMAR BISWAS

In what could be seen as an extraordinary New Year gift to Bangladesh this year? Probably the most recent legalized term, “Fatwa.”

A fatwa is a legal pronouncement in Islam made by a mufti, a scholar capable of issuing judgments on Sharia (Islamic law). Fatwas are asked for by judges or individuals, and are needed in cases where an issue of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) is undecided or uncertain. Lawsuits can be settled on the basis of a fatwa.

In Bangladesh, legal system empowers only the courts to decide all questions relating to legal opinion on the Muslim and other laws in force. In rural Bangladesh, Mullahs usually use this fatwa as a weapon to be powerful where the tentacles of law quite do not reach the common folks. And Islamic militants in Bangladesh are fighting tooth and nail to hold onto the power of delivering fatwa from a long time.

A division bench of the High Court in Bangladesh ruled on January 1, 2001 (during the Bangladesh Awami Legue tenure) that all fatwas are unauthorized and illegal. The court went on to say that the very issue of fatwas should be made a punishable offence. In very unambiguous terms a division bench of the High Court has declared ‘fatwa’, the so–called legal opinion not delivered by any court, as ‘unauthorized and illegal’. Fatwa has been the cause of many a woman’s ruination in Bangladesh.

According to the constitution of the Bangladesh Awami League, the fundamental principles are Bengali Nationalism, Democracy, Secularism or in other words ensuring freedom of all religions as well as non-communal politics and Socialism, that is to say-the establishment of an exploitation-free society and social Justice. Secularism, non-communal politics, and socialism are the most highlighted terms in this constitution.

Did they forget these important words of their constitution when Mr. Abdul Jalil, Awami League (AL) General Secretary and 14-party alliance Convener, signed a 5-point pact with Shaikhul Hadis, leader of Bangladesh Khelafat Majlish (BKH) on December 23, 2006?

The attacks, the most recent of a series of bombings in Bangladesh over the past year, both appeared to target the state’s most prestigious law courts. More than 500 home-made bombs exploded across the country in August, killing two people and injuring more than 100. The Islamic militants have called for the imposition of Islamic law in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

And now, Alems (Islamic clerics) will have the right to issue fatwas which will be the most important weapon to impose Islamic law. Besides this, no law will be imposed against Quranic values, government will take proper initiative to recognize the degrees awarded by Qaumi Madrasas, and nobody will have the right to criticize of Prophet Muhammad.

Fundamentalism has been on the rise in Bangladesh ever since the Bangladesh state veered away from the post-independent ideology of socialism and secularism and underwent an Islamization process and present signed pact one more example of it.

There is a new regime of growing fundamentalist fervor, which is being supported and strengthened by an establishment bent on maintaining the status quo, both in relations to politics in general and to gender relations in particular. This is leading to newer more specific forms of violence against women; a violence which requires the support of village elites being in a position to order (fatwa jari) the burning or stoning of a woman, regardless of existing legal institutions.

Vigilantism against women accused of moral transgressions occurred in rural areas, often under a fatwa, and included punishments such as whipping. During 2005 religious leaders issued thirty-five fatwas in Bangladesh, demanding punishments ranging from lashings and other physical assaults to shunning by family and community members, report from U.S. department of state.

Country felt shame when Mr. Harabullah, a freedom fighter, had to use his hands to string round his neck with shoes which he used to hold the national flag of Bangladesh on December 15, 1971.This recent so-called 'fatwa' was issued against him and his younger daughter for having had a relation with a young man of the same locality.

Meanwhile, AL is trying to defend by saying that it is not a contract. It is a memorandum of understanding based on an election strategy. A number of AL presidium members, leaders of its central working committee, and its city, district, and upazila level leaders expressed their utter shock over the agreement.

“The five-point deal do not conform with 14-party coalition's 23-point common national minimum programme which emphasizes on elimination of religious bigotry and communalism from every level of the government and administration for establishing a democratic and secular country,” said former foreign minister of Bangladesh and chairman of Gono Forum Dr. Kamal Hossain in a round table seminar held at the authentic Indian restaurant in Queens, New York on December 24, 2006.

Mr. Rup Kumar Bhowmick, president of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist & Christian Unity Council, USA, INC. (BHBCUC) welcomed everyone for the seminar and said that the pact would put a dent in the spirit of the war of liberation.

On December 20, 2006, around 6,000 people of various professions of the Hindu community from 28 unions of Munshiganj-1, Bangladesh, comprising Srinagar and Sirajdikhan thanas, led by religious guru Babu Ranjit Chakravorty, formally joined Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), report from various newspaper in Bangladesh.

As a chief guest in that joining ceremony, BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia urged Hindu community to vote for BNP-led four-party alliance in the coming election. She demanded that only they can bring communal harmony in the society.

The very next day, truth prevailed and everybody came to know what happened actually. Most of them were Muslims and forced to join BNP as Hindu by Sheikh Mohammed Abdullah, a BNP ticket aspirant from Munshiganj-1.

In the weeks following the 1 October, 2001 general elections, Bangladesh witnessed an outburst of systematic attacks on the minority Hindu community across the country. Many Hindu families have reportedly fled their homes and sought refuge in areas considered ‘safe.’ Their houses were torched, ransacked and in many cases seized, women were raped, and temples were desecrated.

During the last BNP-Jamaat alliance rule, Bangladesh has been transformed into an inauspicious outpost of Islamic militancy and terrorism. Everybody knows what they did with helpless, repressed, exploited, and ill-fated religious and ethnic minorities in Bangladesh.

Moreover, elections have proved to be a bane for the minorities of the country. To influence the outcome of the upcoming elections, an attempt has already been made to tamper with the voter list. A huge number of voter from minorities have not been enrolled in the voter list.

Religion and freedom of expression, religion and human rights, religion and women's rights, religion and democracy, or religion and freedom are always used very badly in Bangladesh. When Bangladesh was born in 1971, a secular system was quickly introduced and no one objected to it. But in 1984, some political leaders threw secularism out, and instead established Islam as the state religion. These politicians used religion for their own political gains, for their own interests.

Where country’s secular democratic forces safe? Is it too hard to put an end to the rising tide of violence including killings and maiming of the incumbent regime's political and ideological opponents and minorities and to thwart the fast expanding ulterior activities of religious extremists. #

New York, December 26, 2006

Ripan Kumar Biswas is a freelance writer based in New York
Ripan.Biswas@yahoo.com

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Bangladesh's Awami League party and its allies have said they will boycott forthcoming parliamentary elections

Jamaat steer away from 4-party alliance to participate election to become loyal opposition of Khaleda Zia
SALEEM SAMAD

Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina said on Wednesday that the mainstream political alliance she leads would boycott the Jan. 22 elections because the interim government had failed to ensure the vote would be free and fair.

A key political alliance boycott of the election to parliament plunged the nation of 145 million into deepening a political crisis that has crippled the South Asian country for months.

The former prime minister's move adds to uncertainty ahead of the parliamentary elections, which have already brought weeks of political violence and crippling strikes.

Sheikh Hasina, a former prime minister and leader of a newly formed mega alliance of 17 parties, alleged that the interim government charged with organizing the poll favours the alliance's opponents.

Alliance leaders say the caretaker government, led by President Iajuddin Ahmed, is biased in favour of the rival BNP which governed until October.

The announcement came on the day of the last day of withdrawal of nomination for election. Agencies reports that all the candidates have pulled out of the election race, except some dissident candidates of the mega alliance in several places.

The opposition alliance accused the BNP of trying to rig the elections by appointing party loyalists to key positions in the temporary administration and election commission.

'Illegitimate'
Sheikh Hasina said that the caretaker government, led by President Iajuddin Ahmed since October, was biased in favour of her alliance's opponents.

She said that fair elections would be impossible under the caretaker government.

"Mr Iajuddin Ahmed, who has become the chief adviser [of the caretaker government], wants to hold an election using an illegal voters' list," she told a news conference in Dhaka.

"We cannot view such an election as legitimate. That is why we, on behalf of the grand alliance, have decided not to participate in the staged election."

The boycott announcement has put a question mark over the election, scheduled for 22 January.

"The caretaker government is not neutral," Hasina told a crowded news conference in the capital Dhaka. "It's biased in favour of our opponents. So we are not going to the polls on Jan. 22."

She accused President Prof. Iajuddin Ahmed of being partisan of her rival, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and leader of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), and demanded he step down as head of the interim government.

An official in the interim government told BBC radio that they would discuss the recent political crisis in their meeting with the President and would also consult the legal experts.

The standoff has set off street clashes, killing at least 34 people since the interim government took over from Zia on Oct. 29.

The Awami League said on December 24 that it would take part in the elections after repeated strikes, protests and blockades that caused massive disruption across the country and left at least 35 people dead.

Hasina said the alliance would block transportation during a strike on coming Sunday and Monday (6 & 7 January) in an effort to force electoral reforms that would ensure free and fair elections.

The outgoing Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) government accused the opposition of seeking to scuttle the polls but said it would take part in the elections and it was confident that they would be held on time.

However, Khaleda Zia’s alliance reconfirmed it would participate in the election despite Hasina's boycott.

"We shall take part in the polls in spite of the boycott by Hasina's alliance," said Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, general secretary of BNP also a confidant of Khaleda.

Hasina's announcement comes just days after the Election Commission dismissed an appeal by her coalition partner, former military ruler General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, to contest the polls. Election officials last week deemed Ershad ineligible to run for Parliament because he recently lost an appeal of a three-year prison sentence in a decade-old corruption case.

Hasina's alliance has accused President Ahmed of running the government under the guidance of Zia, who constitutionally stepped down at the end of her term to allow the caretaker administration to prepare for the polls.

Hasina said the developments in the past few weeks "have clearly proved that President Iajuddin Ahmed is now the main obstacle in holding free and fair polls."

"We have come to the conclusion that the president must relinquish the office of the chief adviser — the head of the interim government — to make the balloting free and fair," she said.

Hasina denounced the Election Commission saying "biased and dishonest" officials could not be trusted to hold a free and impartial election.

"They must be removed while corrupt and partisan civil officials be kept off duty during the polls," she said.

Acting Chief Election Commissioner Mahfuzur Rahman said Hasina's alliance had formally conveyed its decision to boycott the election. "But we will continue our work for holding the polls on the due date," he told reporters.

She also accused the Election Commission of putting forward a bogus voters list inflated with Zia's supporters and lacking the names of many supporters of Hasina's alliance. The election should be postponed until a new list is ready, she said.

The party had earlier objected to the voter list, saying it contained 14 million fake names.

"The election commission had promised to correct the voter roll but instead they scrapped the names of our supporters and put in the names of a huge number of fake voters as part of the election engineering process," said Sheikh Hasina.

Apart from revision of voter list, the demand included the resignation of two election commissioners and the replacement of judiciary and intelligence agency officials.

What Constitution Says
Bangladesh's constitution stipulates that the interim authority must hold new elections within three months, although this can be extended with permission from the Supreme Court.

Under the constitution, elections must be held within 90 days after an incumbent government resigns under a neutral caretaker government whose tenure is of 90 days.

Hasina said people would take responsibility to protect the constitution and preserve democracy, "but they want to get rid of a corrupt and biased administration first," hinting that she could re-enter the election race should her demands be met.

Bangladesh, an impoverished nation of 144 million, has a history of political turmoil. Two presidents have been slain in military coups. #

With reports of Salim Mia (AFP), Farid Hossain (AP), Anis Ahmed (Reuters) filed from Dhaka, Bangladesh